Md. Offers Child-Care Inspection Data Online

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

Maryland parents will now be able to peruse inspection reports from child-care homes and centers across the state with a new online records system that advocates and officials say will bring another layer of accountability to day-care decision making.

The new system is designed to allow parents to make more informed choices as they seek out care for their children. Maryland joins at least 22 other states in posting online inspection and complaint records, in part or in full. Virginia has had such a system since 2005, and the District is considering one.

"We think it's very important that more states do this," said Linda K. Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. "We do not think it's fair that parents are forced to make choices without all the facts."

With the online search site, parents can see whether inspectors have noted problems with supervision, safety measures, cleanliness, discipline, rest-time practices, training and other issues. The new system went up Dec. 31 but is getting finishing touches and has not been formally announced.

"We want to make sure parents have access to information about the compliance record, which is an indication of how well these programs meet state regulations in terms of safety and health as well as early-learning requirements," said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development.

Child-care providers in Maryland have mixed opinions about the new system, with some raising questions about accuracy and limitations. Each online report gives yes-or-no indicators of problems in 50 broad areas of regulation. But no details are included, so it can be difficult to assess a problem's severity. Parents seeking more information must phone or write licensing officials.

"It's very vague," said Jennifer Nizer, president of the Maryland State Child Care Association, which represents child-care centers in the state. "There needs to be a little more information than yes or no." Nizer said one child-care provider who had a chipped countertop was cited in the system under building safety, which could have suggested a far greater hazard.

The lack of specificity, Nizer said, "leaves a lot of possibilities open that could be much worse than what it really was."

Virginia has taken a more detailed approach. Its online records include descriptions of problems found: an unlocked medicine cabinet; an ungated pool; a caregiver chatting on a cellphone; missing health records; and in one case children restrained with snap belts and cords. The records also include the corrective action to be taken.

In Virginia, "it's been incredibly well-received," said Marianne McGhee of the Department of Social Services, who counted more than 75,000 hits for licensed children's facilities last January alone. "We get comments from parents and caretakers; they get excited that they don't have to just go by word of mouth on a facility. "

After more than three years online, Virginia's child-care providers "have some appreciation for it," although many wish minor problems were not posted, said Marie Mosby of the Virginia Alliance of Family Child Care Associations. "They realize it's necessary for the safety of the children and for the parents' satisfaction."

The District went online Monday with lists of child-care providers. Spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said that adding inspection reports was "a strong possibility" for the site. A previous effort to post online inspection records was sidelined when the city transferred child-care licensing from one agency to another, she said.

Smith, the national child-care advocate, argues that more information is better for parents. "You have to trust parents to understand a minor from a major violation," she said, noting that many states have worried about liability and whether parents will misinterpret inspection reports. "Parents understand this more than people give them credit for," she said.

Research shows that inspectors become more precise and careful in their assessments when they are posted online, Smith said. This, she said, is good for parents and providers. "Inspectors got better with their jobs," she said. "It was not that parents all of the sudden got inundated with information they didn't understand."

Maryland officials said it would not be feasible to include more detailed reports until state inspections are conducted electronically. A pilot program is planned, officials said. The state has more than 2,700 licensed child-care centers and nearly 9,000 home day-care centers.

Still, the state did not wish to provide the level of detail Virginia has and was concerned about the timeliness of the information, Grafwallner said. "If you post the information while the situation is, in reality, resolved, it appears online that this is still an issue," he said.

Grafwallner said inspection reports are "just one piece of information that is helpful for the parents when they compare programs," suggesting that parents also rely on observation and discussions with care providers.

The state's new system was developed at virtually no cost, Grafwallner said, because it was built with software the state already uses to help parents locate child care.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company