Many daycares in Louisiana unregulated; daycare death puts spotlight on state policies _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- A toddler died at Shelia Newman's unlicensed day care at 6345 Prescott Road Friday when day care workers left her in a vehicle after an offsite lunch. They didn't discover she was in the hot vehicle until after the children took a nap. Exterior of the house at 6345 Prescott Road.

Seven is the magic number. Once a day care in Louisiana takes in that many children, it needs to obtain a license.

But if it sticks to less than seven children, it can operate with no more oversight than a baby sitter.

Louisiana is one of just a handful of states that allows day cares with that many children to operate sans regulation.

Some unregulated day cares undoubtedly care for even more children, because children related to the owner are exempt from the cap.

In at least 11 states, caring for even one stranger’s child necessitates obtaining a license.

Small day cares, sometimes referred to as family home centers, may well be the dominant form of child care in Louisiana.

Known small day cares outnumber licensed day cares and preschools by a 3-1 margin.

Thousands more day cares operate outside of any oversight at all, caring for an unknown number of children.

Louisiana established the seven-child licensing threshold decades ago when day care was viewed mostly as a form of baby-sitting. Child care advocates and professionals say it’s a standard that’s long overdue for change, in large part to ensure young children are better prepared for when they enter school.

Advocates, too, say allowing so many children in unregulated environments could lead to tragedy.

It arguably already has.

On June 5, 22-month-old Angel Green died after being left unattended in a sweltering van. She was in the care of an unlicensed day care in Baton Rouge, although one illegally caring for more children than allowed under Louisiana’s rules.

The owner, Shelia Newman, had previously operated a licensed day care in another location, but a court ordered her to shut down after regulators found repeated problems.

“It takes a thing like that, a child dying, before people sit up and listen,” said Alan Young, who owns a large licensed day care in Shreveport and is a former president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana.

Since the young girl’s death, the Louisiana Department of Education, which took over child care licensing in October, has proposed new incentives to expand the licensed child care marketplace, as well as taken steps to educate consumers about the dangers of unlicensed care.

State Superintendent of Education John White on June 11 announced a new online registry, or blacklist, of day care center owners who’d been ordered by a court to shut down. As of Friday afternoon, the 16 owners initially listed had grown to 52.

Each entry is accompanied by the court order shutting that center down.

However, White said on Friday that he has no plans to ask the Legislature to revisit the seven-child licensing threshold.

He said the idea was debated and ultimately rejected in 2012 while the Legislature considered a proposal that became Act 3, the legislation that shifted regulatory oversight of child care centers to his agency.

“The arguments over whether that should be done are well rehearsed in the chambers of the Legislature,” White said.

Sherry Guarisco oversaw child center licensing when it was handled by the Department of Social Services, now the Department of Family and Children Services. She said money is a factor as well; inspecting thousands more day cares could prove expensive at a time when state budgets are tight.

“It’s going to take staff, and it’s going to take funding,” said Guarisco, who is now executive director of the Louisiana Partnership for Children & Families.

“On the flip side, what if you have more children kindergarten-ready because now you know where those children are and they are in a safe place? It seems to me that would be a wonderful investment.”

Advocates say that through the years, political leaders in Louisiana have balked at regulating small day cares out of fear of upsetting constituents who care for multiple children in their homes.

“They say, ‘We don’t want to legislate grandma,’ ” Young said.

Young, however, argued that any regulations could distinguish between family baby-sitting arrangements and paid child care.

“If you charge a fee, you’re a business,” Young said. “I don’t care if you are in a church, a home or wherever. You’re a business.”

In early 2009, the Department of Social Services proposed requiring licenses for thousands of small day cares that receive federal meal and tuition subsidies, but the Legislature did not act on the suggestion.

These day cares register with the state to be able to receive that money but undergo minimal scrutiny.

“We were hamstrung at that point,” Guarisco said. “We were literally grabbing figures out of the sky. We didn’t know how many children were out there.”

In November 2013, the United Way of Southeast Louisiana tried to figure that out.

The nonprofit released a report that found there are nearly 8,300 small centers receiving federal subsidies, caring for an estimated 40,000-plus children. The report did not even try to figure out how many more were operating outside of any program. By contrast, the United Way counted almost 1,700 licensed child care centers, as well as another 700 public and private preschools.

Monique White runs Ministry of Angels Childcare & Learning Center out of her home on Sherwood Forest Boulevard. She has gone back and forth through the years, operating at times with a license and at times without, though she said she has a license now. She also rented a separate location for her center, but it grew too expensive so she moved her business back home.

Price is the primary consideration for many parents, she said, noting that the cutoff after six children for licensing makes sense to her.

“When they say six children, they say that for a reason,” White said. “That’s about all you can handle by yourself.”

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, a socially conservative group that takes a skeptical view of government regulations that might encroach on the home or on traditional institutions, like churches, said he would be concerned about more regulations in this area.

Families have the responsibility of exercising due diligence and making informed choices about where they send their child for care, he said.

“If you are not careful, you are going to go so far as to prevent a nursery service at a church,” Mills said.

Newman took advantage of the fuzzy line Louisiana sets between small and larger day cares.

On Sept. 15, state District Judge Tim Kelley ordered Newman to shut down Shelia’s Learning Academy & Daycare on the outskirts of Baker. Newman consented to the order, but she wasn’t going out of business.

Rather, in her affidavit to the court, she made it clear she was downshifting and would instead run an unlicensed, but legal, day care.

Eight months later, Angel was dead. Newman’s new unlicensed day care, 7 miles south of her old one, was caring for nearly 20 children, making her operation illegal.

Newman, 47, was released on June 10 from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on $75,000 bail. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Given how open Louisiana is when it comes to day cares, Newman, now free but facing a negligent homicide charge, may be able to go right back in business, as long as, this time, she keeps things small.

“If they stick to six or fewer kids, I’m not aware of any way they can shut them down,” said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the New Orleans-based Policy Institute for Children.

Young said that needs to change.

“We need to have something more punitive for someone who violates the law, to make it painful, so we don’t put children in harm’s way,” he said.

State Superintendent White said he’s open to the idea of making operating an illegal day care a criminal offense in certain cases.

“When you know there are egregious violators who thumb their nose at the law, it’s useful to consider if the law should be revisited,” White said.

Bronfin said many people in Louisiana assume that day cares are more regulated than they are.

“You can be more sure of walking into a restaurant and making sure you can have food you can eat than you can walking into a day care and making sure your kids are safe,” she said.

Kimberly Brewington, director of Abundant Blessings Child Care in Baton Rouge, a licensed center with a capacity of 35 children, said having a valid license is not necessarily the first thing parents ask about when they come to her day care on O’Neal Lane, but they are much happier when they see it.

“It’s visible right when they come on our campus,” she said. “They get a better affirmation and a better feeling that these are the people actually working with my children.”