July 18, 2013 10:13:32 AM
JACKSON -- After more than a year's delay, the Mississippi Department of Human Services is requiring that parents use a finger scanner to sign children in and out of federally subsidized child care.
The scanners will be required starting Oct. 1, for 18,000 children whose care is subsidized by federal grants. DHS has sent letters to child care centers in the last week notifying them of the deadline.
By then, parents and other caregivers will have to initially visit county DHS offices to have their fingers scanned into the system, or lose their subsidy.
A phone-in attendance system was required starting July 1, for the roughly 300 home-based centers that care for children covered by federal vouchers. The scanners were delayed last year by a lawsuit challenging DHS' rulemaking process.
"It's been our intent the whole time to pursue that," said Jill Dent, director of DHS' Division of Early Childhood Care and Development.
She said the state expects to pay a unit of Xerox Corp. about $1.2 million a year to administer the program. The contract would pay the company up to $13 million over five years depending on how many children are getting vouchers, but numbers would have to increase to hit that ceiling.
DHS officials say the program will spur parents to visit preschools more often, promoting interaction with teachers, as well as save money by, among other things, blocking centers from getting paid when children are not there. If the state could squeeze more money out of the program, it might be able to offer vouchers to some of the 8,000 children currently on the waiting list. That list ballooned when federal stimulus money ran out, and the cutbacks caused a financial squeeze at many child care centers, forcing some of them to close.
Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative in Biloxi, said scanners are intrusive and technically burdensome.
"I know DHS knows that providers don't want it and parents don't want it and they have run into all kinds of problems with people who have piloted the scanners," Burnett said.
Dent, though, said DHS has learned from the pilot program, which currently involved 15 centers around the state. For example, people will be able to view training videos and register online, cutting down the time they will need to spend at the county DHS office to just getting their finger scanned. That trip to the DHS office has been one of opponents' major objections.
"It's the hassle factor, that you're going to have to ask everyone else on your drop-off and pick-up list to go through it, too," Burnett said.
Up to five people can have their finger scanned for every child. Dent said parents can designate unscanned people to drop off or pick up children, as long as they later correct the records.
Delores Suel, the owner of Prep Company Tutorial School in Jackson, sued DHS, claiming the department failed to follow state law in its rule-making process to require the scanners. Suel won, forcing the department to repeat the process. Though DHS believes it's in the clear to go ahead, Suel is still hopeful that a Hinds County Chancery judge will block the program.
She's not sure if she'll install scanners, saying she wants to read the information that DHS has said it will send to providers.
"Before I do that I want a legal opinion and the judge's decision," Suel said.
Dent says centers can leave the subsidy program if they object to the scanners, although many centers depend on subsidized children for business.
"This is voluntary for providers to choose whether or not they want to continue on this program," Dent said.