Children are being pushed into unlicensed child care homes and out of child care facilities entirely through an unintended effect of a new law passed to protect them.

Nathan’s Law was written to ensure the safety of children in unlicensed child care homes. The law was named after an infant, Nathan Blecha, who died in an unlicensed child care home in 2007. He was 3 months old.

In closing a loophole that had allowed unlicensed providers to care for four children and an unlimited number of related children, lawmakers also got rid of the provision which allowed licensed providers to not count their own children in their license capacity.

The hope was the legislation — which went into effect Wednesday — would ensure providers were not caring for more children than they could handle. According to previous Missourian reporting, however, over half of Missourians live in child care deserts. Limiting the number of spots a licensed provider can have means that those deserts become even larger.

“The law that was gonna make more children safe is actually putting a lot of children in an unsafe position,” said Amanda Atkins, who operates a licensed child care home.

Amanda Frevert, a Fayette mother, is experiencing the consequences of the legislation first hand. Her licensed provider told her less than a week before the law was enacted that they could no longer take care of her 7-year-old son because the provider had to make room for her own grandchildren. His last day was Aug. 29. Now, Frevert will rely on nearby friends and family to watch out for him for an hour every day after school.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, the law’s sponsor, said that while part of the effect on licensed providers was unintended, she does not intend to change it.

“The law is not perfect, but the problem is being handled by regulations and the use of a waiver process by the Department of Health and Senior Services,” Schupp said.

The changes

The goal of the new law was to set limits for the number of young children providers could care for but to exclude their own children over age 5.

That’s what the law does for unlicensed providers. Lawmakers, however, inadvertently didn’t grant the same exception for licensed providers. As a result, they have to count all of their children regardless of age.

To deal with the discrepancy, the state is granting variances to licensed care homes for their biological children age 5 and older on a case-by-case basis. Not all licensed providers, however, qualify for the variance. Grandchildren can’t be included under the variance.

“The department is recognizing that it is not fair, quite frankly,” Schupp said.

The new law also added harsher penalties for unlicensed child care providers found to have more children than allowed. Illegal child care was raised from an infraction to a class C misdemeanor for a first offense and class A misdemeanor for subsequent offenses. Providers can be fined up to $750 for a first offense and up to $2,000 per day, not to exceed $10,000, for subsequent offenses. Still, unlicensed providers are not subject to strict oversight. In order to be punished for violating the new law, someone would have to call and report the provider to DHSS.

“The reality is the department, the state, don’t know who (unlicensed providers) are,” Schupp said. “The only time we find out is when a complaint is lodged.

“Schupp said the new law is designed to ensure that when that occurs, it leads to consequences for those violating the law.

“Prosecutors often didn’t prosecute unlicensed cases because there wasn’t an incentive,” Schupp said. “The new changes give the law teeth.”

Unintended consequences

Deb Williams, the owner of a licensed child care home, said the new changes have forced her to turn away children she has been looking after for years.

Under the new law, Williams is required to count her grandchildren in the total number under her license, which leaves her with less spaces for paying families.

“My grandchildren just come sometimes,” Williams said. “They’re not Monday through Friday, they’re not full time, they’re occasionally visiting. But I have to save two full-time slots in case they want to visit.”

Debbie George is in a similar situation. She too had to make room for her grandchildren.

George uses two slots for her 3 - and 4-year-old grandchildren. Her school -aged grandchild is only under her care for about 20 minutes until he and the 3-year-old are picked up by their father, but under the new law, she has to count him as one of her full-time slots.

Williams is not alone in her struggles. Atkins, owner of Briarwood Early Learning, said the law disincentivizes providers from becoming licensed, because unlicensed providers can now care for the same amount of children as a licensed provider with a six-child license.

Frevert said there aren’t many child care options in her area for her son.

“She’s had him since he was 2,” Frevert said. “She’s very emotional about it.” The woman had to choose between Frevert’s son and her own grandchildren. “It’s extremely hard to make that decision.”

Frevert’s son gets out of school at 3:12 p.m. and takes a bus ride to his father’s office on the family’s farm. Frevert said her son will have a list of things he can and can’t do and a list of emergency numbers. She said her son is responsible, and she isn’t worried about his safety. She is more worried about other children who have to stay by themselves longer and whose parents might have to work more as child care prices rise.

“If you’re getting paid slightly above minimum wage, you can’t afford daycare,” Frevert said. “Children will have to be left alone longer while their parents work.”

The decreased capacity in licensed homes has already pushed children toward unlicensed homes because of a lack of options. Atkins said this could result in children being put in dangerous situations.

Atkins, as a licensed child care provider, is required to abide by many regulations. Her home is checked by the fire marshal yearly. Anyone working at the home must have a background check and have their fingerprints taken. They must be CPR and first-aid certified. They must take at least 12 credit hours yearly of continuing education in child care.

Unlicensed child care homes are not required to do any of this. Some unlicensed providers hold themselves to the standard set by licensing regulations, but there is no law requiring it.

Frevert said two of her children started out with an unlicensed provider. While she said the woman was nice, the conditions were unacceptable.

“My husband had to talk me out of reporting her, so other children wouldn’t lose their place,” Frevert said. “It was dirty, unsanitary.”

Department confusion

Because officials didn’t realize how the new law would be interpreted, the Department of Health and Senior Services was left rushing to comply with the new laws.

In an initial email sent out to providers July 22, DHSS said the new law’s changes to related children being counted would only impact unlicensed providers and licensed providers owned by a corporation, LLC or other legal entity.

A second email, sent Aug. 2, said all licensed providers would have to count their own children, regardless of ownership.

The emails have caused confusion and anger among licensed providers, who said a month is not long enough to prepare for the changes.

“The way child care works around here is that the spots are so hard to find that people are planning years out,” Atkins said. “We have people calling us before they’re even pregnant to reserve their next infant spot.”

Schupp said she understands that it can be difficult to leave a provider that a child has been with for a long time, but that Child Care Aware, a nonprofit group that focuses on resources for families and providers, is trying to help.

Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, said her organization provides a free child care referral service. Phillips said the service aims to demystify the process of searching for a provider.

She cites the need for increased infrastructure to help child care providers adjust to the change.

“Most people who get into child care love children,” Phillips said. “It’s their passion. Not everyone comes to the table with a business background.”

Phillips said people could choose to look at the changes as unintended consequences, or unintended benefits.

“As a state, we’ve turned this corner on this new law, we have to now focus our conversation on access to care, and supply,” Phillips said. “I’d love to see additional resources on business and budgeting for child care providers.”

Craig Stevenson, director of policy and advocacy for Kids Win Missouri, said his organization, which advocates for children’s issues, didn’t realize licensed providers would be affected when they began advocating for the legislation. He said providers should work closely with their licenser, and that the state health department’s plan is to educate people initially and work with them.

“Our hope, first and most important, is that children are in safer environments,” Stevenson said. “When the dust is settled, fewer kids are in unsafe settings.”

An uncertain future

Some Missouri lawmakers have raised concerns about the law.

“Representatives have gone to the speaker and brought up concerns that there isn’t enough time to roll this out,” Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, said.

Reisch first found out about the consequences for licensed providers when a constituent reached out to her. After meeting with concerned providers, she said she has been in contact with the governor’s office. She asked the governor’s staff to address the issue in an upcoming special session, but that hasn’t happened.

Schupp said lawmakers will look at how the law affects those it’s intended to help and go from there.

Atkins already knows what that impact can look like.

“The bulk of this hurt is coming down on licensed programs,” Atkins said. “That’s what doesn’t make sense.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.

  • State Government reporter, fall 2019 Studying investigative journalism Reach me at eew3pr@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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