The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is sticking to its strategy of relaxing licensing requirements for in-home child care providers on the off chance that lightening their regulatory load will stem a long-term decline in their numbers.
A new set of licensing rules developed by the department took effect Wednesday. And although the rules have improved slightly since the department released a preliminary version for public comment earlier this year, the attempt to ease the regulatory burden still stands to unnecessarily lower the quality of care some children receive, the amount of information to which parents are entitled about the facility where they’re leaving their children during the day, and the degree of access parents have to their children while they’re in care.
The new rules, to start, allow in-home child care providers to care for more children than the state previously allowed, without having to add staff.
Under the new rules, providers no longer have to count their own children ages three or older toward required child-to-staff ratios that are meant to ensure children receive the appropriate level of adult attention for their age. The younger the child, the more individualized adult attention he or she needs to ensure safety and promote brain and language development.
But another change by the department affects the level of individualized adult attention some of the youngest children might receive: The department’s new rules shift children between ages 2 and 2½ to an age group with older children that requires less staff supervision.
The department also removed from the new rules a provision that guaranteed parents the ability to visit their children at any point during the day, and the rules scale back the amount of information to which parents are entitled. The rules, for example, no longer require that child care providers make available to parents all of the licensing requirements they must follow, and they no longer require that parents be fully informed of licensing deficiencies found by state inspectors.
The department has defended these stripped-down licensing rules by saying that the law limits the agency to considering only the health and safety of children — not the quality of care — in designing regulations. But child-to-staff ratios are a key element of the quality of child care, and the department has altered them, potentially significantly.
And, if the purpose of the rules is strictly to ensure children’s health and safety, we fail to see how allowing an adult to oversee more young children, removing parents’ rights to be able to visit their children at any time and striking their right to be fully informed of licensing deficiencies improve the health and safety of children in care.
We also fail to see how guaranteeing parents these rights when they sign up their children for child care would negatively impact a child care provider’s bottom line.
To be sure, some parts of the rule are welcome. The new rules, for example, formalize a requirement that child care staff members receive fingerprint background checks — a requirement of both state and federal law with which Gov. Paul LePage has previously refused to comply. The new rules also require that home-based child care providers test their water for lead. And, following public comments about the rule, the department scaled back the policy allowing child care providers not to count their own children toward child-to-staff ratios. (Now, the rule allows that only for children three and older; the preliminary version allowed providers to exclude all of their own children from the ratios.)
The new regulations from DHHS are a baseline. There’s nothing preventing a child care provider from going above and beyond and providing a higher level of care with lower child-to-staff ratios, and providing parents with more information and access to their kids than the rules require.
The baseline, however, is the minimum level of care in terms of quality, safety and health for every child attending in-home child care. Unfortunately, Maine has just backtracked on the bare minimum.