By Ron Gilbert
There’s been a lot of talk since the election of President Trump about rolling back regulations that are perceived to be harmful to businesses. I don’t know whether the loosening of regulations for banks and Wall Street is good for America, or if EPA regulations really do strangle businesses. But there are other regulations that we’re all probably much more familiar, and their value is clearly evident.
We regulate a wide array of activities and service providers – and those regulations are geared toward protecting ourselves and our families. We require an individual to hold a valid driver’s license to operate a vehicle on our streets and highways. We require professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, to hold a valid license to insure that they possess the knowledge and skills necessary to provide the services we seek. We require restaurants to be periodically inspected to minimize the health risk to customers. We regulate barbers and manicurists and tattoo artists, and a myriad of other professions and services. But there’s one glaring area in which we provide exceptions to the idea that we regulate for the public good – and that area is child care.
In Alabama, those who provide care for unrelated children for more than four hours a day, in their home or in other facilities that are not subject to regulation by other governmental entities, are required to meet a set of minimum standards in order to be licensed and are subject to monitoring and site visits by the Department of Human Resources to document compliance with those standards. And the standards themselves are defined as ‘minimum’ – they define a minimum level of care necessary to insure that the health and safety needs of young children are met. The standards cover a number of areas, but include items such as regular inspections by health and fire departments, define the amount of space required based on the number of children to be served, and staffing ratios based on the age and number of children at a facility. They also require criminal background checks for those who come into direct contact with the children, and a record review to determine if an employee or potential employee has had past reports of child abuse or neglect. Many Alabama child care providers actually exceed these standards, and provide an excellent level of care for the children entrusted to them.
But we also are one of only seven states that allow child care providers to operate without regulation or inspection if they are a part of a church ministry, and the number of child care providers who seek that exemption – and with it eliminate the requirement to meet those minimum standards – is growing each year. According to the 2016 Alabama Kids Count Data Book, published annually by VOICES for Alabama’s Children, 10-year projections show that by 2025 license exempt programs could make up 70 percent of all child care in Alabama.
License exempt providers are only required to tell DHR that they maintain records of fire and health inspections, immunization records, and other documents – but they are not required to produce evidence of those records. They are not subject to inspections by DHR to determine that children in those programs are cared for properly in safe and clean environments. It’s not uncommon that programs coming under increased scrutiny for violation of minimum standards will voluntarily relinquish their license as a provider of child care, and then continue operating as an exempt program. Our statutes don’t define what a church ministry is, and shouldn’t – and that leaves the door open to anyone to claim that there exists a connection to a ministry, and therefore they are not subject to maintaining those minimum standards of care. There have been cases of tragedies at unregulated providers which placed children in extreme danger – children have been injured, children have died.
Our legislators will have an opportunity to remedy this situation during the current session. The Child Care Safety Act will remove this exemption, and require that all child care providers be subject to monitoring and inspection. The bill provides, however, that nothing involved in the licensure process can infringe upon the rights of the provider to teach or practice a religion. All the bill will really do is to help insure that children across the board are in safe environments each day.
Community Action Agencies across our state work each day with families seeking to improve their capacity to provide for themselves, and access to affordable, safe child care continues to be a major factor in the ability of low-income families to achieve economic security. In Alabama, where we place such value on the role of church and religion in the family and community, it’s seems as if we’ve created a perverse discrimination – children in ‘secular’ programs are worthy of the protections of regulation, but those in a ‘church ministry’ program are not. That’s discrimination of the worst sort – and it can led to serious consequences for those most vulnerable and in need protection – our children. Let’s take this opportunity to make Alabama safer for all of kids.
Ron Gilbert ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Community Action Association of Alabama, a network of local non-profit agencies that have worked in all 67 Alabama counties for over 50 years to improve economic conditions for low-income people. You can find your local community action agency by going to www.caaalabama.org.