Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Kristin Coble, who is waiting to be approved for a day-care license, and her husband moved from New York to Washington so he could take a job with the D.C. Public Defender Service. Coble did make the move, but her husband was at George Washington University Law School at the time.

D.C. day-care licensing criticized

By Justin Moyer
Monday, September 20, 2010

Rasheeda Wilson has seven children living in her home in Southeast Washington. She's got her own kids -- Rashed, 16, Wade, 14, and Atyra, 12. Then she has her sister's kids -- Diamond, 5, Miracle, 4, Heaven, 3, and Angel, 2 -- hers to care for because their mother, Wilson says, is addicted to drugs. Add five dogs and a cat and that's 13 living creatures on Brothers Place SE that depend on Wilson -- or, as she puts it, "a lot of heartbeats."

Still, Wilson is ready for more. For many months, she's wanted to open an in-home day care. The main obstacle, she says, is the D.C. government.

Wilson is driven by her desire to be at home for her children. Good parenting aside, day care is a potentially lucrative career. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, the District ranks behind only Massachusetts when it comes to the cost of child care. D.C. parents pay an average of $917 a month -- more than $11,000 a year -- to have other people watch their kids.

But child care is a tough business that's tough to get into. And the District isn't making it much easier, according to women going through a city licensing process that they describe as slow and unwieldy.

"Are we locking any children in closets?" joked licensing specialist Jessica Parker at a child-care licensing orientation held at city offices on North Capitol Street. "Are we withholding food?"

The audience of about 50 women laughed, but the road ahead was difficult. Anyone who regularly takes care of an unrelated child at home and wants to get paid for it needs a license, and the District's Office of the State Superintendent of Education oversees a multi-agency licensing process as unwieldy as its name. The orientation -- which includes training on how to accommodate the disabled, a visit from a fire inspector and a discussion of lead safety with a Health Department sanitarian -- is the first step in a months-long process few applicants will have the money, time or wherewithal to complete.

Child-care entrepreneurs must follow the Health Department's "Title 29 DCMR Chapter 3 Replacement New Child Development Facility Regulations," an 86-page document that does not shrink from specificity. Applicants must supply prospective meal plans, pass a criminal background check and get certified in CPR. The manual delineates the first-aid supplies every day care needs ("One [1] roll of one-half [1/2"] non-allergenic adhesive tape").

Finding a path through the bureaucratic thicket is not easy, the agency in charge of licensing says. The agency has moved twice in the past year. "Our Web site is awful," says Chad Colby, a spokesman for the superintendent's office. "I'm not sure if it makes sense or is easy to find."

Blaming bureaucratic delays and money troubles caused by those delays, most applicants drop out. Only three of more than 50 people present at an April 15 orientation will join the ranks of about 150 in-home day-care providers up and running in the city.

Wilson and Kristin Coble are among the women who faced those long odds.

In February, Wilson quit her $47,500-a-year job as director of a transitional housing program when carting seven children to school, day care and doctors' appointments become overwhelming. If she gets certified, she'll get slots for six children -- her four foster children plus two more. If she hires an assistant, she can watch a dozen children for about $100 a child a day.

Wilson's home not far from Bolling Air Force Base in Congress Heights sports an ample yard that abuts a park. But Health Department regulations require a day care's outdoor play area to be fenced-in. So, even though she knew her day care wouldn't bring in any money until at least fall, Wilson dropped $3,500 on a fence in August. Although the fence separated the back yard from the woods, an inspector told Wilson that it wasn't adequate because it didn't separate the front yard from the back yard. The solution: more fence and more money.

"I have everything I need on my side," Wilson said. "I've followed every stage, but I'm going broke." She estimates that her day care could make more than $60,000 annually. But for now, she's not making anything.

No stranger to early-childhood education, Coble and her husband moved from New York to Washington so he could take a job as a lawyer for the D.C. Public Defender Service. Coble taught at a day-care center for homeless children, and later worked investigating child abuse. She's also had Montessori training.

About a year before her daughter Maya was born, Coble and her husband bought a house in Petworth. Soon after, the house next door went into foreclosure and, though Coble says "my husband and I live on the edge with our finances," the couple bought the house and hatched a plan to open a day care called Little Lotus in their old home next door. The idea was that Coble would make money caring for other children as well as her own. The setup seemed perfect. In the weeks after the orientation, she detailed plans for a day care that would serve organic fruits and veggies before sessions of baby yoga.

"I could have it done within a month," Coble said in April.

Cut to the last Friday in August. Coble stands in her would-be day care surrounded by unpainted drywall and dust. "We've got to get this going," she said. "We're on the brink of bankruptcy."

The summer has not gone smoothly. Coble had contractor problems as she sought to meet the District's standards with $17,000 in renovations to her house.

To open a slot at Little Lotus that's worth about $385 a week from a paying client, Maya's in the care of a Brazilian au pair for about $340 a week, meaning that an unemployed prospective child-care provider on a tight budget is paying someone else for child care while she waits to be approved to provide child care to other people.

Coble worries that the city might not license her for an in-home day care that's not technically in her home, even if it is next door. (She's set up a bedroom with a double bed and alarm clock on the day care's second floor in case inspectors raise this question.) Coble says unreturned calls and vague answers to questions about how long licensure can take are difficult for a would-be small business.

The agency says that only about 10 percent of those who seek certification to run an in-home day care get to the finish line. To Wilson, that's proof that something is amiss. "They're leaving us out there," she said.

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