State website neglects to post details of serious violations at child care centersParents searching for child care now can view the results of state inspections of child care centers online, including health and safety violations and what the centers are doing to correct them.
By: By Doug Erickson, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
Parents searching for child care now can view the results of state inspections of child care centers online, including health and safety violations and what the centers are doing to correct them.
The move has helped Wisconsin jump 10 spots in four years on a national ranking of state oversight of child care centers, although the state remains in the bottom half at 37th.
Wisconsin still holds back details about the most egregious violations -- those that lead to fines. Consumers must call a regional state office for that information. Online, only the date of a fine is shown, not its amount or the circumstances.
This uneven approach can lead to a distorted picture of which centers truly are safe, said Anneliese Sheahan, a child care provider in Mosinee and president of a union that represents family child care providers in 71 Wisconsin counties.
"You get to see whether someone left bread crumbs on the kitchen counter but not whether children were lost on a field trip," she said. Fines "are much more serious than other violations, and full disclosure of those should be on the website."
The state Department of Children and Families, which oversees child care centers, declined to make anyone available for an interview on the issue. Spokeswoman Sara Buschman said in an email the department has made great progress in the past nine months posting "more comprehensive and detailed information" about child care centers online.
As to why that information doesn't include fines, she did not directly answer. "The department uses input from consumers on what additional information they would like to see as we continue to improve the website," she wrote.
To bring greater transparency to the regulatory process, the Wisconsin State Journal compiles a list of fines each year through an open records request. A chart accompanying this story details the 2011 fines, and a State Journal database of fines since 1998 is available at go.madison.com/childcarefines.
After lagging behind other states for years, Wisconsin began in 2010 to rate centers on their overall quality and to post additional information about centers online. The state website is at dcf.wisconsin.gov/youngstar.
Those moves have helped Wisconsin rise from 47th among states in 2007 for its oversight of child care centers to 37th last year in an annual ranking by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. The state still gets low marks on several measures, such as inspecting centers less than the association's desired standard of at least four times annually.
Wisconsin's rating system, called YoungStar, awards stars based on factors such as the level of staff training and the educational value of the curriculum.
Five-star centers meet the highest levels of quality standards. One-star centers didn't pass inspection and might be in the process of having their licenses revoked or suspended. They don't meet basic health and safety standards and can't participate in Wisconsin Shares, the state program that subsidizes care for low-income children.
All centers in Wisconsin Shares are required to have a rating. However, centers can choose to bypass the actual YoungStar evaluation process. In those cases, the centers get automatic two-star ratings, meaning they've passed their most-recent licensing inspections and meet basic health and safety standards.
"We've heard a lot of different reasons for why a program decides not to go through the rating process," said Kirsten Suer, the YoungStar project manager at Community Coordinated Child Care, or 4C's, in Madison, which helps evaluate programs for the state. "Some programs don't necessarily want another government program involved in their business. Others aren't able to invest in additional education or they don't want to make changes in their business practices or curriculum."
A lot of two stars
So far, 3,602 of the 3,701 centers that receive taxpayer money through Wisconsin Shares have been rated, Buschman said. Of those, 215 got five stars (6 percent), 55 four stars (1 percent), 526 three stars (15 percent), 2,765 two stars (77 percent) and 41 one star (1 percent).
The state has said all along a vast majority of providers will be rated two or three stars, and this doesn't mean they are unsafe environments.
The rating system takes on heightened economic ramifications July 1. That's when centers rated four or five stars will see their reimbursement rates through Wisconsin Shares increase 5 to 10 percent. The move is controversial because two-star centers' reimbursement rates will decline 5 percent.
Separate from the rating system, the state in June started posting online the results of inspection visits.
It's not uncommon for the inspectors to find violations -- often minor things such as a garbage container lacking a cover or paint beginning to flake. Other problems are much more serious, such as failing to keep accurate attendance records, which could lead to a child wandering off without a teacher realizing it.
The severity of some violations isn't always obvious. A child may break his arm falling off a swing, but it may be due to landing the wrong way, not because the playground lacked supervision or the padding under the equipment was inadequate, Suer said.
"The violations themselves do not have a severity index, so in some ways, it's about the family needing to visit the site," she said. "It comes down to the parent doing due diligence on what the violations mean."
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services