It’s time to protect children in child care

Published 10:01 am Wednesday, November 5, 2014

As executive director of Child Care Aware of Virginia, I know firsthand how important it is that children are safe in child care. Every day, child care resource and referral staff members throughout Virginia educate parents to be good consumers of child care and to help them find care, as well as train providers to improve the quality of care. As a grandmother, I know how difficult it is to find affordable, quality care and to trust that children will be safe and in a setting that promotes their healthy development.

The Washington Post series over Labor Day weekend revealed that at least 60 children, mostly babies, have died in Virginia child care programs over the past several years — 43 in unlicensed care. Since that time, three babies have died — two as a result of a fire in a Lynchburg unlicensed program and one last week as a result of a fire in a Midlothian unlicensed home, bringing total deaths in Virginia child care to at least 63 children, 46 in unlicensed care.

The death of any child is a tragedy. However, it is an even greater tragedy when such deaths can be prevented. Virginia is one of eight states that do not license child care home providers until six unrelated children are in the home. Licensing is important. It means that a provider has had a background check, some minimum training in health and safety, annual training in important topics like child development, and inspections to ensure that children are safe. I work with child care providers to help them offer the best care possible, to keep them abreast of best practices, and to plan for emergencies. The reality is that even well intentioned people are sometimes uninformed; people don’t know what they don’t know. That’s why licensing is important: It benefits children, parents and providers.

Nearly 394,000 children younger than 6 in Virginia have working parents. In too many communities, parents have difficulty finding licensed child care. One of the reasons is that the licensing threshold is so high. When a provider is caring for unrelated children every day, every week, as a service she is paid for, she is in fact operating a business. Children who have died in child care as a result of a fire, or babies who have died in child care related to sleep position (licensed care requires babies to be put to sleep on their backs as recommended by the National Academy of Pediatrics to avoid infant suffocation), are heartbreaking tragedies. Yet, they may be preventable with the proper training.

It is really scary to me that dog groomers and nail technicians are more strictly regulated than the child care industry. Yet we allow our most vulnerable little ones to be cared for by untrained and unregulated caregivers.

The licensing threshold, which means the number of children who can be cared for in a home before a license is required, is set in Virginia statute. In Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria, local policy requires a permit or a license as soon as one unrelated child is regularly cared for by a provider. The permit or license requires a background check, minimum training, minimum health and safety protections for children, and local monitoring. But outside of Northern Virginia, children are left to chance.

The licensing threshold in Virginia has not been changed in more than 20 years. More mothers are working now and working full time compared with 20 years ago. We know more now about child safety and child development from two decades of research. The first five years of a child’s life are critical to development and school success.

In 2010, Kansas enacted Lexie’s Law, which reduced the state’s licensing threshold from six children like Virginia’s threshold down to one unrelated child. The state allowed for a one-year transition period and provided support and training to providers to meet minimum health and safety protections for children. The law also required providers to post their child care license with a state seal in a prominent place in their home so that parents could see it. Lexie’s Law passed in response to the death of Lexie, a 13-month-old toddler, along with 26 other children who had died in child care throughout the state.

More than twice as many children, mostly babies, have died in child care in Virginia. Most of these deaths have been in unlicensed care, and many would likely have been preventable. The licensing threshold is a legislative loophole putting children at risk. It’s time to close the loophole and protect children. Working parents depend on it.

Sharon Veatch is the executive director of Child Care Aware of Virginia. Contact her at