WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri must stop subsidies to illegal day cares

Saturday, August 30, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

One toxic result of Missouri’s notoriously lax system for monitoring day cares and its failure to value children and families is that the state is continuing to pay child care subsidies to illegal day care operators.

The state fails its children by neglecting to weed out illegal day cares. State agencies do not share information about potentially bad providers. Thus federal and state money intended to make child care affordable for low-income parents sometimes goes to caregivers who are illegally watching more than 10 children at a time.

As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Nancy Cambria on Aug. 17, about $200,000 in such payments went to providers who had been cited for exceeding child counts in the past 3 1/2 years. That amount is believed to be just a small fraction of the subsidies that have been collected by violators who were not caught.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that the situation is expected to change next year, partly in response to new federal standards. The new regulations will compel the state to begin monitoring day cares that receive subsidies, which means there will be more inspections and direct oversight.

Many Missouri politicians complain about the heavy hand of federal regulators, but apparently the state will not do the right thing on its own.

For about 30 years, Missouri has allowed unlicensed churches and home day care providers to receive subsidies with no inspections or direct oversight. That means dogs in Missouri are more secure than children, at least since the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act of 2011.

That is indefensible, though Missouri policymakers did not willingly start taking care of dogs, either. After suffering for decades with a reputation as one of the worst places in the nation for puppy mills and bad dog breeders, the state’s voters took it into their own hands to approve a tough set of dog-breeding regulations.

It is way past time for Missouri to do the same for children. Missouri may need a “kiddie mill” law.

Among other transgressions discovered by the annual “Kids Count” report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, nearly 22 percent of children in Missouri lived in poverty in 2011 (compared to 16 percent in 2000). The state ranks 29th in the nation for child well-being and 30th for health indicators for children,and the rate of violent teen deaths per 100,000 people is higher than the rest of the nation.

As it stands, Missouri can only investigate day care cases if a hotline call is made. And then, if a violation is found, the state has authority to make only one visit unless a new hotline call is made.

That is a travesty.

Part of the blame belongs with the state’s bureaucracy. The two departments that work on illegal day cares fail to coordinate their efforts. One is theMissouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which is responsible for inspecting licensed day cares and investigating violations. The other is the MissouriDepartment of Social Services, which administers federal subsidy payments.

Officials from the departments failed to respond to Ms. Cambria’s specific written questions about the degree to which they collaborate on stopping payments to illegal providers. A Health and Senior Services spokesman said the office is “putting a procedure in place to share information,” and the Social Services department confirmed it has authority to revoke the subsidy to a provider found violating its contract.

Despite the confirmation, the department was unable to produce documents showing that it had notified any illegal home day care violators that their subsidies were being cut off.

Who is to blame? Ultimately it is Gov. Jay Nixon. Both the Health and Senior Services and Social Service departments are part of Missouri's executive branch of government. Mr. Nixon must insist on better performance and greater cooperation. He must require agencies to make sure that day care operators who care for too many children or otherwise violate their contracts do not get state and federal subsidies.

The amount of money that went to illegal operators cited for caring for too many children does not sound like much, but child care advocates say that most illegal day cares remain unreported. No one is paying attention to them.

Ultimately, there is a significant amount of money at stake. Last year about $111 million in federal and state subsidies was paid to Missouri child care providers, most going to licensed child care facilities that are routinely inspected.

But not all. Some $38 million went to unlicensed facilities, and about $25 million of that was paid to home day care providers.

This is not to say that all home day cares are bad or that providers who are not subject to state inspections violate the state law. The law says unlicensed providers may serve an unlimited number of related children, for example, siblings and cousins, but they are allowed to add only four unrelated children to the mix.

There are enough of them operating outside the law that policymakers should be concerned. The subsidies could be used to serve children in better child care settings. Turning off the spigot would also take away an incentive for a child care operator to disobey the law.

A state that is as tight with its money as Missouri should not be giving it to people breaking the law.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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