Arlington County officials, in an effort to close a budget gap, have proposed eliminating a child-care ordinance that since the 1970s has set safety and quality standards at levels that far exceed state requirements.
The move, part of County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s draft spending plan for fiscal 2014, would cut county criminal and health background checks for all child-care providers, end county safety inspections and training for child development, and leave an estimated 1,000 children in unregulated care for the first time in 40 years.
The county would revert to Virginia state child-care standards, which Child Care Aware of America, a national advocacy group, has given a safety and quality rating of F for family home care and D for child-care centers.
“Arlington County is going to be leading the race to the bottom if we get rid of this code,” said Sandra Redmore, director of the Clarendon Child Care Center, who is organizing a petition to fight the change. “It’s critical to maintain high quality standards in all settings,” she added. “But low standards are going to hurt low-income children the most — and that hurts us all.”
In Virginia, family home-care settings with up to six children, religious institutions and after-care programs are exempt from state licensing standards. An estimated 400,000 children, about half of all those with two working parents, are in such unregulated care, according to Child Care Aware of Virginia, many of them infants.
In Arlington, the cuts would have the greatest impact on the county’s 125 family home child-care programs with up to six children, serving a total of 625 children, which would no longer be licensed by the county. They also would affect 14 child-care programs offered by religious institutions and after-care programs.
Overturning Arlington County’s Ordinance 59 and eliminating the three-person Child Care Licensing Office would save the county about $250,000. Arlington is trying to close a projected budget gap of $25 million to $50 million.
“I have a lot of concerns about it,” said County Board member Mary Hughes Hynes, who has worked as a day-care director and teacher. “It’s been a point of pride for Arlington for many years that we’ve focused our attention on our littlest people.”
The board will hear public comments on Tuesday and approval of a budget is expected April 20.
Kurt Larrick, spokesman for the department, said the 66 child-care centers and 29 larger child-care homes that together serve 4,200 children are licensed by the county and the state. Under the proposal, they will continue to be licensed by the state, he said.
“We’re striving for better efficiencies, and that stood out as an area where we might be able to step back without compromising safety,” he said. “There were no easy choices.”
But child-care advocates argued that those state licensing standards are far lower. Under the proposal, student-teacher ratios for licensed providers would be higher and teacher education requirements would fall.
Fairfax, which, along with Alexandria, is the only other jurisdiction in the state with higher local child-care standards, permits 1,700 small family child-care providers and leaves the larger providers to meet state requirements.
“My biggest concern is that we’re going to see a sudden explosion of day cares that are going to be completely inadequate,” said Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, whose two children were cared for by a small family home provider with five children, which would be unregulated under the county manger’s proposal. “I know that market forces are not going to keep my children safe. It’s easier to have them sleep in a room unattended because it’s too expensive to pay staff. I would prefer to have a regulatory system that’s looking out for the best interests of children.”
Schwartzbeck is one of a number of parents organizing letter-writing campaigns and protests.
At Miss P-Nut’s House in South Arlington, owner Marie Mosby proudly displays her county and state licenses, the results of her most recent visits by the county inspector and the fire marshal, her emergency response plan and the busy daily schedules for her babies and her “walkers” that line the colorful walls of her home child-care center.
Upstairs, one worker changes diapers and, after vigorously washing her hands, tosses a bright red ball to a 10-month-old. Downstairs, another child-care worker finger-paints with three 2-year-olds. Both, like Mosby, are certified in CPR and first aid and have received hours of training in child development and safe sleeping practices.
“Eliminating the local child-care office is just endangering children,” said Mosby, who serves as president of the state Family Child Care Association and is lobbying against the new proposal. “I know people who want to take kids into their homes. Some have no outside entrance to the lower levels, which you need for fire safety. Many have been suspended. This just says they’ll start up again and, if they take no more than five children, no one will say anything.”
She worries that the move will lead to more children being strapped in their car seats and hidden in closets and bathrooms, as happened in Dale City when Child Protective Services found 20 children, ages 3 months to 4 years, in the care of two women.
Mosby, 70, a former middle manager at Verizon and a global consultant who turned to providing child care 12 years ago because of the enormous demand in the area, shook her head. Then she said it was time to get to work. She dove onto the plush alphabet rug next to a fat, bald baby and, lying on her tummy with her legs in the air, helped him spin the wheels of a bright yellow truck.
“These children don’t have a voice,” Mosby said. “That’s why I’m speaking up.”