Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Child-care safety bill needed now

By Senator Tim Corder & Representative George Sayler

Last week, the Senate passed by a 30-5 vote Senate Bill 1112, a proposal to change Idaho's outdated and inadequate child-care statute. Supporters of child-care reform have tried for years to amend current laws that leave thousands of children vulnerable. The vote is a bright star on what has been a dark horizon of child care in Idaho.

Unfortunately, some now want to cast a shadow over that star. In his March 15 column, Wayne Hoffman tried to discount the impact SB 1112 would have in improving child-care safety and alleged that the law would be costly and burdensome. We would like to correct these misperceptions.

If enacted, SB 1112 would end the loopholes that create safety issues for many children and that provide opportunities for people, including sexual predators, to harm children. The current law allows anyone to care for six or fewer children without any regulation or oversight, and it has minimal requirements for group care facilities taking care of seven to 12 children.We have a mountain of evidence showing the need for change. Current problems range from children being sexually abused to providers being intoxicated, to other health and safety violations. Current law makes it virtually impossible for the state to take action in most cases.

SB 1112 would provide a consistent, minimum statewide system of safety requirements for children in child-care facilities where four or more children, unrelated to the provider, are being cared for on a regular basis for compensation. It would require criminal background checks and health and safety inspections. Firearms and water safety measures are included, there must be a working phone on the premises, and maximum group size and child-staff ratios are established.

The bill would provide a process for the Health and Welfare Department to monitor these standards and suspend, deny or revoke licenses where illegal activity or serious threats to health and safety are found or where convicted sex offenders are on a child-care facility's premises.

Hoffman referred to an incident where a fire inspector showed up at a licensed child-care facility and found children being kept in locked plywood cubbyholes. His point was that licensing did not prevent the abuse. We are not claiming to be able to prevent all abuse, but the inspection would not have happened without the licensing requirement. The abuse would have continued.

Hoffman argued that more licensing takes away family responsibilities or may be too burdensome on small providers and costly to parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Licensing fees are based on the number of children being cared for and actual costs of providing the license. Where licenses have been required in cities with ordinances, no decrease in the availability of child care has occurred.

Under Senate Bill 1112, parents would retain primary responsibility for child care, but the state would take a larger role in ensuring that all child-care facilities meet minimum health and safety standards. We believe the state has that responsibility. We also believe it is the parent's responsibility to choose the type of child care most suitable for their family. Unfortunately, parents don't always fulfill their responsibility. As Hoffman acknowledged, some parents will only be concerned with the cost and may even place their children in locked cubbyholes. Why should their children be put at risk?

This year, the Legislature has required veterinarians and mortgage brokers to be licensed and have criminal background checks. Passage of SB 1112 will send the message that our children are at least as important as animals and money.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene, are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1112.