Lack of database makes comparing day cares difficult

By Jimmie E. Gates/The Clarion Ledger

JACKSON – While state changes may provide more subsidized child care in Mississippi, parents are on their own when it comes to investigating the safety of facilities.
The state Department of Health monitors and tracks potential deficiencies at child care centers, and the citations are public record. But, the only way for a person to know if a child care facility has been cited for a deficiency is to file an open records request to the agency.
A planned database that would make such information accessible may be years away. No timetable has been set for implementing the new software, and Health Department officials are not sure they will be able to afford it under the agency’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Health Department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said.
“It’s very expensive software, and we are in the process of putting out a request for proposals. Once we get the bids in, we will know if we can afford it,” Sharlot said.
She would not provide estimates for the software, saying only that it could be in the millions of dollars.
Making such records more public is something child care advocates have routinely pushed.
Knowing what may be available in the future is small comfort to parents who have had bad experiences.
The Health Department, which also licenses child care facilities, investigated 611 complaints in licensed child care facilities in fiscal 2011, which ended June 30, 2011. That was slightly less than the previous two years when there were 639 complaints in fiscal 2010 and 654 complaints in fiscal 2009.
Of the total 2011 complaints, 95 required disciplinary action, Sharlot said. The other complaints required technical assistance, plans of correction or were unsubstantiated.
For each violation, the day care must submit a detailed plan for achieving compliance, Sharlot said. The department’s punishment can range from a $50 fine to closure of a facility.
State law and the child care licensure regulations require a criminal history records check to include a DHS child abuse registry check, federal and state fingerprint checks, and federal and state sex offender record checks on owners and employees of a licensed facility.
Jane Boykin, executive director of the Mississippi Forum on Children and Families, said working with children is hard, but nothing excuses inappropriate behavior.
Boykin advises parents to “first, stay with a licensed facility, and second, talk to other parents.”
Boykin said the key factor is whether children are happy at a child care facility and if parents are satisfied.
Finding qualified child care workers is the main reason Earnestine Mason says she has not had problems with the Health Department in the more than 30 years she has owned Mother Goose Christian School and Mother Goose Christian Academy in Jackson.
Parents should stay involved in their child’s care at any center, Mason said.