More licensing needed for child-care facilities

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another child has died in an unlicensed Missouri child-care facility. Nine-month-old Lucas Theede-Bennett's death was a preventable tragedy for his family, and for Brenda Caringer, the woman charged with his death. The tragedy for every Missouri citizen is that Lucas was not the first child to die in a Missouri child-care program.

According to data from the Missouri Department of Social Services, 11 Missouri infants died from preventable causes in 2007 while someone was being paid to care for them. Two of these deaths were from child abuse. Others were from sudden infant death syndrome or suffocation. It is a sad fact that children die from abuse, neglect and preventable accidents in unlicensed child-care businesses every single year in our state. Missouri has decades of these data on the public record.

Most parents choosing child care don't realize that Missouri law contains a loophole that allows more than 4,500 individuals to operate unlicensed facilities. Currently, any family child care that serves more than four children is required to be licensed, but children related to the business owner are not counted. The result is that a single individual can be caring for 10, 12 or even more young children, as long as only four of them are unrelated to the owner.

Lucas' senseless death is yet another signal that it's long past time to close this loophole. Again this year, as it has many times before, the Missouri Legislature has the opportunity to make this change. State Rep. Rachel Storch of St. Louis has introduced House Bill 383 to require licensure for any family child care regularly serving more than four children. Period. The children related to the business owner would count too. And those family child-care businesses that remain unlicensed would be required to post a notice for potential purchasers of their services to see. Parents could still choose unlicensed care, but they would be making that choice with full awareness that there was another option. And the group of children could never legally exceed four.

Testimony on Representative Storch's bill included comments from the mother of 3-month-old Nathan Blecha, who died in 2007 from asphyxiation after being put to sleep on his tummy in an unlicensed family child-care business. If Nathan's and Lucas' child-care facilities had been licensed, these business owners would have been required to have training, including information about child abuse prevention and positioning of sleeping babies. They would have been inspected regularly and would have been connected to a web of resources for training and advice. Would all of this support have prevented Lucas' or Nathan's death? Perhaps not. But the possibility that these two little boys could be alive today should haunt every citizen in this state.

The position of the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network is that anyone paid to provide care for children on a regular basis should be licensed by the state, be required to have annual training and be inspected regularly. Representative Storch's bill is a powerful step in that direction for Missouri, which also exempts some center-based child-care programs from full compliance with licensing rules.

Lucas Theede-Bennett was not the first child to die in a Missouri child-care program, and this legislature is not the first in Missouri's history to have the opportunity to better protect our youngest and most vulnerable children. My fervent hope is that this Springfield-area tragedy will be the final call to action for Missouri legislators and all Missouri residents. Every voice is surely needed if we are to rouse our elected officials to action. Each of you who reads this column can be among those who finally say, "No more."

L. Carol Scott of St. Louis is the executive director of the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

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