Many Day Cares Violate Health & Safety Standards, But The Solution To The Problem Isn't Simple

Parents across the country count on federally-subsidized day care facilities. A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that those child care providers may not always meet state standards. Day care health and safety violations are surprisingly common if the day care relies on federal funds to operate, but knowing how to look out for them can help keep kids safe.

The Inspector General's Office audited 227 child care providers across the country and in Puerto Rico, according to NBC News; they included both commercial facilities and "in-home providers." Of these, 96 percent violated a state regulation. The inspected child care facilities all receive federal subsidies designed to help families with low incomes, the Associated Press reported. The $5.4 billion spent annually is meant to ensure high-quality day care facilities, but inspectors discovered that loopholes and lax reporting practices make it easier for child care providers to skirt state regulations.

One major concern involved a lack of criminal background checks for caregivers, NBC News reported. According to acting deputy regional inspector general George Nedder, on-site adults don't always get the vetting they need:

We found 186 people who lacked a criminal records check either caring for children directly or present in the facility — in one case, living in the basement of a child-care provider. You're talking about people who have access to kids all day long. Who are these people? Nobody knows.

Child care facility inspections over the last few years show a concerning trend: Often, the majority of audited day care providers in a state don't meet standards, according to ABC News. Reports released in 2014 and 2015 reveal that all providers examined in Arizona, Louisiana, Michigan, Puerto Rico, and South Carolina had, at minimum, one violation. Dangers can include everything from exposed wiring to mold, potentially seriously jeopardizing kids' health.

Part of the problem is that most states likely have fewer inspectors than they should have, NBC News reported. The ideal is a 1-to-50 ratio, but many inspectors are effectively responsible for more than 100 facilities.

It's important to note, though, that this inspecting problem and the violations at facilities might be the result of a funding issue; even though the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act was meant to improve the quality of daycare facilities, there's not much evidence to suggest that state agencies have the resources they need to facilitate change. Facilities also struggle with uncertain funding. The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago profiled a Des Plaines facility, Kiddie Junction Educational Institute, that faced funding challenges when a state program was set to be cut. At that facility alone, low-income families faced the possibility of daycare payments increasing 10 to 16 times beyond what they already paid ($25 weekly) without the additional support from the state.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute also found that working parents are often not financially equipped to handle the high costs of child care. According to EPI, "In 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs exceed the average cost of in-state college tuition at public 4-year institutions." HHS developed a 10 percent affordability threshold, but most families don't meet it. An editorial on Central Maine made the argument that withholding funds from child care facilities actually costs society in the long run:

No one is getting rich, and the margins make it difficult for the providers who are affordable for low- and moderate-income families to make the most out of what are some very important years in the life of a child.
That’s unfortunate, because high-quality early education saves money, despite its high costs. Children who receive it do better in school, require less special education, are more likely to attend college and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and the impact is particularly strong for children from low-income families.

For now, low-income families are forced to do their own investigative work to find viable child care options. Nedder told NBC News that he recommends Child Care Aware's State by State Resources for Families to help parents make informed decisions about day care providers. Child Care Aware recommend a hands-on approach to choosing a day care. This includes calling a Child Care Resource and Referral agency before visiting recommended facilities. They recommend seeking out accredited child care options and asking care providers questions about how many kids they care for, how many adults are on site, and what their qualifications are for running a day care. Child Care Aware also suggests staying involved; checking in regularly keeps caregivers accountable.

It's not easy to choose a day care, and the HHS report may make the prospect feel even more overwhelming. But with careful evaluation, it is possible to find child care options that really do keep kids safe.