July 25, 2013 9:52:17 AM
JACKSON -- State officials call inaccurate a recent federal report that criticizes Mississippi for not regulating hundreds of home-based child care operations.
The July 11 report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says Mississippi is violating federal rules by failing to enforce health and safety standards for home-based centers receiving federal subsidies.
But Jill Dent, director of the Division of Early Childhood Care and Development at the state Department of Human Services, said Mississippi requires some training, limited background checks and self-certification. She said DHS plans to ask the federal government to correct the report.
Still, homes caring for fewer than six children are exempted from regulation by state law and aren't subject to inspections.
Critics say some poor-quality child care centers pose a risk to a child's health and intellectual development.
"I really am not a fan, and never will be, of putting children in homes that are uninspected," said Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative. That group, based in Amory, works with privately owned and publicly run child care centers to improve their quality, but refuses to work with home-based child care centers.
Spreitler urged quality "home cares" to go through the licensing process, and urged state officials to adopt a streamlined licensing process for homes.
"You could come up with a simple matrix for a home provider," he said. "It doesn't have to be expensive."
Mississippi's home care program saw a big turnover when the state started requiring federal subsidy recipients to call in when checking in and out their children, part of a larger effort to monitor subsidies electronically. Most attention has been focused on electronic finger-scanning at freestanding child care centers. When the requirement began June 1, the number of homes in the subsidy program fell from 2,300 to 300.
"We had 2,000 that did not follow the steps to remain a provider," Dent said.
She said many voucher recipients are still looking for new providers.
Mississippi's decision to exempt home cares from licensing is not uncommon. At least 23 states also do so. According to federal data, 21 percent of children helped by federal money nationwide are cared for by providers who are exempt from licensing. Mississippi State University, though, has estimated that more than half of the state's children are in unlicensed settings. That's in part because home care is usually cheaper than a larger day care center.
But states that use federal money to subsidize care in those unlicensed homes are supposed to perform at least basic regulation in three areas -- prevention and control of infectious disease, physical safety of buildings and grounds and health and safety training.
The report singles out Mississippi, saying it does nothing to comply. HHS spokesman Don White said Mississippi failed to provide any requested information, which could have contributed to it being highlighted.
"In the extreme, Mississippi officials reported that they did not have jurisdiction over license-exempt providers at all; they had no requirements for either center-based or family home providers in any of the three areas required by the statute," wrote Deputy Inspector General Stuart Wright in the July 11 document.
Dent, though, said that's incorrect. Home-based providers must pass a limited background check, have first aid, CPR and educational training, and meet basic rules regarding food preparation and physical safety, she said.
The state health department inspects licensed child care centers to certify that they comply with rules. Home-based providers, though, must only self-certify that they meet rules such as removing garbage, safely preparing foods and not spanking children. That certification takes place once, when a home enters the subsidy program, Dent said.
The state also provides training through the Nurturing Homes Initiative, a Mississippi State University program that aims to improve the quality of home child care. "We're doing all we can to try to improve quality," Dent said.
Mississippi is not unusual in allowing self-certification, according to the report. At least 21 states allow some form of self-certification. That could change, though, under new rules the federal government is proposing that include requiring unannounced inspections, a fuller background check, increased first aid and health training and a better definition of "physical safety."
Dent said state officials are working on their own improvements that they'd like to roll out over the next year. They could include additional training videos that home providers are required to watch, as well as a comprehensive background check.
But she said DHS can't afford to start doing inspections.
"We don't have any way to monitor them," Dent said. "We don't have the staff, we don't have the money."