Legislation would authorize state fines; task force urges quality rating system

Peggy Scott should be relaxing in retirement at her James Island home. Instead, she's running ragged watching her 5-month-old granddaughter while the girl's mother works.

She doesn't want to see her granddaughter placed in child care because she doesn't trust the state to ensure the girl's safety. South Carolina should do more to help working parents identify quality child care and to clamp down on centers that put children at risk, she said.

"I'm no spring chicken anymore. It's killing me," she said. "But I have an abhorrence to day care."

A recent Post and Courier series found that many Lowcountry child care centers repeatedly violate state regulations meant to protect the safety and health of children in their care. That's because the state lacks authority to enforce its own rules by imposing penalties on violators, and it rarely shuts down problem centers, the newspaper found.

Two efforts under way this year could change that.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, is expected to introduce legislation today that would give the state authority to fine child care operators who repeatedly or wilfully place children at risk and impose criminal penalties on day care businesses that fail to register with the state. And a state task force is wrapping up a report that recommends the state adopt a quality rating system and provide financial supports to help centers improve.

"We are not trying to nitpick them to death," Lourie said. "This is an opportunity to weed out those few operators who consistently violate standards and put children in harm's way."

Opinions from the child care industry are mixed.

Phyllis Savenkoff, director of Kreative Kids Child Development in Summerville, said centers have enough on their plates without worrying that an overzealous state bureaucrat is going to ring them up for fines.

"I just don't think they need to fine centers," she said. "If there was negligence on the part of the center, I could see it, but it would start to spread to other centers that are trying to do the right thing."

Lourie's Childcare Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 also would restructure a state child care advisory board and allow state regulators to inspect home-based child care-centers at least once every three years. Under current state law, home centers caring for fewer than six children are not regulated by the state and only subject to inspection when a complaint is filed.

Kimberly Gaillard operates a small child care center out of her home in downtown Charleston. She's OK with state inspectors dropping by, as long as they apply the visits evenly to all home centers. "I think safety should be the number one concern. I'm fine with that."

Officials with the Department of Social Services had no comment on the legislation, but Leigh Bolick, who heads the agency's child care services division, recently told The Post and Courier that her inspectors already are overloaded with centers and new duties would only add to their workload.

Lourie said his bill would not impose on the state's 1,500 home-based centers the myriad rules now required of larger, licensed centers. It would, however, give the state the power to occasionally check in, he said.

"If you are keeping children in your home for a business to make an income, I think the state has an obligation to make sure some basic standards are in place," Lourie said.

The bill also takes aim at a state advisory board that can veto proposed child care regulations before lawmakers even consider them. Lourie's bill takes away the board's veto power and lowers the industry's representation on the board by one and gives that slot to a parent. Lourie and others have said that the industry has too much power to quash proposed regulations it doesn't like.

Child care industry leaders say they don't oppose oversight but are wary of regulations that would raise costs out of the reach of working parents.

Susan DeVenny, director of First Steps, applauded lawmakers' interest in child care issues and said she hopes the attention builds support for a voluntary five-level rating program for child care centers. Most other states already offer parents such a resource.

The proposed rating system would include grants and tax incentives to help centers achieve higher ratings, provide tax credits for parents who place their children in high-ranking centers and offer financial incentives to teachers and caregivers who pursue additional education in their profession.

DeVenny said she believes child care operators will buy into the plan because it includes practical tools to help them improve their businesses and raise the quality of care for children.

"It's not just about having standards," she said. "It needs to be tied to incentives that provide the wherewithal to achieve them."