Child care workers say state inspectors too finicky
ST. PAUL — A stick or rabbit dropping in the yard of a Minnesota child care center, or a crayon mark on a table, may be enough to get a citation from state regulators.
That is going too far, child care center workers told a state Senate committee Wednesday, March 28, and senators agreed.
"If you truly want to stop the child care crisis now ... then you need to hold the Department of Human Services accountable," Elizabeth Bangert of the Here We Grow child care center in Mankato told a Senate health and human services committee.
DHS regulates professional child care centers like the one Bangert runs, while counties regulate home-based child care services.
Child care providers report regulatory problems with both the state and counties, such as rules that are difficult to understand but regulators will not clarify. They also say there is no flexibility.
Bangert is so upset that she and others, mostly from Mankato, shut down their child care centers Wednesday afternoon and drove to St. Paul to bring light to the issues. Most of the nearly 40 center owners and staff wore black, as did others around the state who could not attend the rally and Senate meeting.
In a statement to Forum News Service, DHS Inspector General Carolyn Ham said her department is trying to work with providers.
"DHS has been proactively reaching out and engaging family child care providers and child care center owners and staff to better understand their licensing concerns and working to increase communications and transparency," Ham said. "Since last summer, DHS has held more than two dozen meetings across the state, including in the Mankato area, with child care providers to share information about legislative changes and hear providers' concerns."
Still, she said, DHS needs licensing requirements to protect children's health and safety. "While most child care providers offer safe, nurturing care, there are unfortunately times when incidents or violations occur in licensed child care that place children at risk of harm."
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said the state does not provide enough flexibility to providers and his bill that passed out of committee Wednesday is designed to change that.
Weber said his message to DHS is: "Get this done." He said he expects some relief for providers by year's end.
One example of overreach, Weber said, is requiring an in-home child care provider to fingerprint a 13-year-old child who lives in the home. Another is when a child drank out of another child's cup and the center was cited.
If DHS does not change, Weber said, the Legislature will have to step in. "What we are asking for is common sense."
Dayton said that the state must protect children and families. "Every business thinks there is too much regulation. ... We are trying to prevent some incident from destroying some family's life."
In Moorhead, Director Kay Heidrich of Trinity Lutheran Daycare agreed with Weber about common sense.
Every few months Heidrich gets a new list of regulations from the Twin Cities. She said daycares across the state are constantly written up for minor violations.
"It's really a challenge to stay on top of all of it," Heidrich said.
She said many rules are not clearly communicated, including the infamous plunger rule.
"Where do you keep a plunger in your home? ...In the bathroom, but if you keep a plunger in the bathroom of a child care center, it's a licensing violation," Heidrich said.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said some businesses are moving to Iowa from her southern Minnesota district, and she blamed lack of child care facilities.
Bangert said each state inspector seems to have his or her "pet project" and enforces the rules different than another inspector.
"If it doesn't change," she said, "you will wake up someday ... and see what it is like to do without child care."
Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, told Weber to keep "bird dogging" the issue.
Turning to the child care workers, he said: "You have this big Gestapo coming down on you. ... There are some crazy nonsensical stuff that is getting in the way of you doing your job."