Some want to end day-care exemptions

Monday, February 17, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Officials who raided a St. Louis day-care center this month expected to shut it down for building code violations.

Instead, they discovered one employee was a convicted sex offender, according to police. And the officials exposed what many describe as a major loophole in Missouri's regulations on child care.

The loophole, not found in most other states, exempts an estimated 806 day-care centers in Missouri from all forms of state licensing, including even basic requirements that workers submit to criminal background checks.

To qualify for the exemption, a day care need only show that it's operated by a school. Meeting the requirement can be as simple as offering a kindergarten program, state officials said.

Kids' World Christian Academy day-care center in St. Louis had operated the two facilities that were raided under the exemption since 1996, state officials said.

The unlicensed centers even were allowed to accept state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

It took an anonymous tip to a hot line for investigators with the Missouri Division of Family Services, a city building inspector and city police to visit the centers.

The day-care operation was closed for building code violations. Criminal charges have not been filed.

Andi Schleicher, of the Child Day Care Association in St. Louis, said the exemption undermines a system that does a good job of keeping tabs on licensed centers.

The problem is that so many day-care settings are not regulated, Schleicher said. In addition to exempting day cares operated by schools, Missouri does not regulate home-based day cares with fewer than five children.

Missouri also is one of about a dozen states that don't require faith-based day-care centers to obtain a license, as long as they submit to minimum health and safety standards.

Child safety advocates nationwide have long called on states to eliminate exemptions that allow certain categories of day-care centers to operate without licenses.

"Right now, it's not a good picture in terms of exemptions," said Pauline Koch, executive director of the National Association for Regulatory Administration, a private organization that promotes higher day-care standards.

Missouri is among 14 states that exempt day-care centers from state licensing if they are operated by a school, according to information compiled by the Children's Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington.

Sue Porting, of the Missouri Bureau of Child Care, said day-care centers seeking the exemption are asked to provide organization charts showing the centers are administered by a school.

But Porting said once a day care qualifies for the exemption, the state does not check to make sure the centers remain part of a school.

Schleicher said the exemption falsely assumes that those who teach school-age children are automatically qualified to handle a day-care operation.

So long as the exemption remains, she said, many parents will falsely believe that if a school-based day care is open and taking money from the state, it can be trusted.

Others call for more sweeping changes that would end regulatory exemptions not only in Missouri, but across the country.

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