What federal investigators found when they paid unannounced visits to 20 child day care centers in Connecticut was disturbing. Unfortunately, it wasn't surprising.
The purpose of the visits by investigators for the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was to determine how well Connecticut is keeping an eye on these centers licensed by the state. The only conclusion one can draw after reading the inspector general's report, released last month, is that the state is doing a terrible job.
Nineteen of the 20 randomly selected day care centers did not comply with one or more state licensing requirements that are in place to ensure health and safety of children. Most had multiple violations. Two were so bad that the operators voluntarily surrendered their licenses.
Inspector general staffers visited home day care centers in Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Waterbury, Windsor and Windsor Locks. Though the inspections focused on urban centers, it is logical to conclude the findngs are typical of many (though certainly not all) of the 2,470 licensed family day care home providers in Connecticut.
What inspectors uncovered is enough to keep a parent from going to sleep at night or from dropping their children off and going to work in the morning.
Chemical cleaners and other poisons were within reach of children. TVs and other heavy objects were found atop precarious perches, easy for a curious toddler to pull down. There were dog droppings in a children's play area, dead insects in dining areas, filthy floors and walls, two and three children lumped together in single beds or cribs for their naps.
Equally disturbing, in eight of the homes investigators found adults living or spending extended periods who had not undergone criminal background checks, as required by law.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health, which has responsibility for licensing and inspections, did not challenge the inspector general's findings and recommendations.
The state agency agrees it needs to do more inspections. It acknowledges the need to better train child day care providers. And it pledges to more clearly define "household member" so that adults spending time around children do not slip through the background check requirement.
The problem, said state officials, is money. The DPH claims it barely has the staffing to meet the minimum requirement of one inspection every three years. To conduct annual inspections would cost another $1.4 million a year, including adding 11 additional staff.
Oklahoma, rated first by a nonprofit child welfare agency when it comes to assuring quality day care, conducts three annual inspections.
Spending another $1.4 million out of an $18 billion state budget to provide better protection for children seems reasonable.
With the new Office of Early Childhood preparing to assume responsibility for day care licensing in July 2014, it is a good time to have that discussion.
This troubling report also points to a larger issue. The nation underwent a major demographic shift over the last several decades. Women entered the workforce in ever-larger numbers, seeking equal opportunities. There has also been an economic component to this shift; it is now very difficult to maintain a middle-class family lifestyle without two people working.
Yet there has been no corresponding shift in public policy to deal with the challenge of childcare. A hodgepodge of options have evolved - dependence on grandparents, working alternate shifts, and a vast and poorly regulated child care system. Society provides those charged with caring for its most valued asset - its children - some of the lowest pay. You often get what you pay for. Yet even at this low pay, parents often invest a large portion of their income for the child care they need to keep working.
Progressive companies are open to using flex time and technology, which often allows work to get done as easily at home as in the office, to help parents care for their kids. More should follow that lead.
This discussion also needs to continue as a matter of public policy. More inspections alone will not fix this problem.