Maryland day-care regulators got a boost from the House of Delegates yesterday in their crusade for broader authority to investigate unlicensed day-care operations.
The House voted 84 to 40 to grant regulators the power to obtain search warrants in investigating facilities where they have been denied entry. Under current law, the regulators have to go through the police in getting a judge to issue a search warrant.
The bill would not apply to licensed facilities, which could lose their licenses if they refuse to allow inspections.
Also, the House voted 92 to 32 last week to double the maximum fine for providing day care illegally, a misdemeanor, to $1,000.
The two bills, which have now gone to the Senate, resulted from the trouble regulators had when they tried to close down an unlicensed day-care operation at an Oxon Hill woman's house.
Regulators had received complaints since 1983 that Nannie Mary Pressley was providing unlicensed child care, and four times ordered her to stop. But regulators were unable to get inside to confirm the complaints so they could seek criminal charges.
Last May, with the help of county police, regulators entered Pressley's house and found 54 children, including 13 infants, court records show. Police help came only after regulators received a complaint about possible child abuse. (A licensed operator is allowed to care for eight children in a residence or 20 in a special facility.)
On Jan. 30, Pressley was fined $175 for providing unlicensed child care. Day-care regulators now visit her house once a week to ensure that she does not go back into business.
Maryland day-care regulators drafted the bills to "strengthen our deterrence against these types of cases," said Roberta Ward, an assistant director of the state's Child Care Administration.
But the search-warrant proposal has drawn fire from legislators who fear the power could be abused. Aside from law enforcement agencies, only fire marshals and toxic-waste investigators have such powers.
Opponents of the bill say day-care regulators should continue to be required to work with police to obtain warrants.
"We're talking about coming into people's homes, mostly women's homes," Del. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Baltimore) said.
Critics also worry that expanding regulators' powers would make affordable day care harder to find.
"You put these modest people at risk of being penalized, of having their homes invaded, for not wanting to be licensed, for not wanting to be part of the bureaucracy," Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore) said.
Fulton, who said a neighbor "who was probably unlicensed" helped raise him, said authorities are misleading legislators by pointing to the Pressley case. "We make it appear that this kind of problem is pervasive," Fulton said. "We are going to extremes in paranoia."
Day-care regulators in the District already have the power to obtain administrative search warrants. Their Virginia counterparts do not.
"This bill is really only intended to deal with cases that have gotten to be time bombs," Ward said. "We only want to go after the worst offenders."
She noted that regulators received more than 1,360 complaints about unlicensed day care last year but pursued only five cases in court. To obtain a search warrant, regulators need to show a judge evidence that "the health, safety and welfare of the children in the family day-care home are substantially threatened." They also must get approval from the state Attorney General's Office.
Ward said she is under no illusions that the unlicensed day-care problem "can be solved by prosecution. The reason you have so many unlicensed child-care providers out there is that there is a demand for affordable care . . . . We feel that it is more important to educate parents why it is in their interest to seek out licensed care."
Staff writer Howard Schneider contributed to this report.