When I was a little boy and liver was still considered a health food, we'd eat plenty of liver at my house. And in a desperate attempt to make it taste better, I'd drown my liver in yellow mustard. Why mustard? I don't know. But I was a kid, and I needed something - anything - to make the liver seem more palatable. The mustard made me feel better about it, but really, all it did was give me mustardy liver.
Such are day-care laws. The people behind this year's efforts to make Idaho's day-care laws tougher have brought to the Legislature a good serving of previous years' liver, though smothered in sauce. It's tastier, alright, but not much better. Stronger, but still flawed.
Idaho parents will get only one result out of tougher day-care laws: more expensive child care with all the same risks parents faced before. Children won't necessarily be safer.
To sell the legislation, proponents are telling the harrowing tale of a firefighter who showed up at an Idaho day care one day in order to perform an inspection. While there, the fireman noticed ramshackle plywood cubbyholes with doors and locks. The fireman assumed these makeshift cubbies were for storage of the kids' shoes and other personal items - until he watched a mom bring her baby, place the child in a cubby and lock the door.
Upon hearing that story on Thursday, the Idaho Senate voted 30-5 in favor of the bill that would place new mandates and restrictions on day cares in Idaho. The bill now goes to the House.
But parents living in states with tougher day-care laws pay for those laws, even though they're merely paying for illusionary peace of mind. Those costs come in the form of higher taxes or higher prices through the day care itself. This new bill contains burdensome provisions, including some that may require all day cares, including home day cares, to follow the International Fire Code (contained in six large three-ring binders at the state law library). The fire code includes requirements for fire sprinkler systems and professionally installed, hard-wired smoke detectors with secondary backup power supplies.
These and other requirements will cause quality home day cares, previously not covered by the licensure law, to go out of business. This will reduce the freedom parents have to find the child care that meets their needs. In home day cares, the work is usually performed by one person day in and day out, usually in a loving household where there is consistency and relationships are built. My wife and I owned one of those small day cares, and I'm confident that we could not afford the price of retrofitting our house to meet new standards.
In Idaho last year, there were 1,018 licensed day cares in operation (not counting Boise and Coeur d'Alene, which do their own licensing), according to the state Department of Health and Welfare. And last year, the agency revoked seven day-care licenses.
Five of the seven were because of children being abused in the day care, according to the department, including a Meridian child who got a broken leg after being slammed into a high chair and an American Falls youngster who was bitten by a day-care owner. These day cares all had licenses, yet those licenses, for some reason, did not generate the expected halo of protection that some people think comes automatic with licensure.
And that day care I spoke of earlier? The one with the cubbies? That was a licensed day care. That's why the fireman was there, conducting an inspection.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies says Idaho's day-care laws rank among the worst in the nation, because, according to the association's ascribed measurements, the state doesn't do enough regulation. The association that labeled Florida the very best state for child-care oversight based its decision on the state's stringent licensing, background checks, inspections and staff-child ratios. But the association doesn't generally talk about Florida's own share of gut-wrenching stories of children neglected, abused or killed. Recently, a day-care worker in Hudson, Fla., was arrested after he admitted molesting a 4-year-old boy. In Texas, Nevada and New York, states with more stringent oversight than Idaho, parents have all been greeted by the occasional story of child mistreatment that they inadvertently paid for.
For some parents, the transaction involving leaving one's kids with a stranger is no more painful or complicated than that of buying a microwave oven; the toughest - and sometimes the only - question is, "How much will it cost?" There's nothing you or I or the Legislature can do to change that reality, yet that's what it takes to make kids safer in a day-care setting.
The burden has been and always will be on the parents. It's up to them to do the research - to do the background checks, to conduct surprise inspections and to ask the tough questions.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].