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Parents weigh daycare options online

By Donna St. George
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó A new mother, Poli Marinova set out to find the best possible day-care provider for her infant son. She had little trouble finding a list of nearby caregivers, but she discovered there was no easy way to check their track records in Maryland.
Then a friend sent her a link to an online system in Virginia, where she could view inspections and complaints. “You could look back over a number of years and see if there was anything major,” said Marinova, 30, who settled on a day-care center near her suburban office. “That was very important to me.”
At a time when many parents worry about safety in child care, a growing number of states have launched online record systems that bring a new layer of accountability into day-care decision making.
Experts laud the improved access to public records for both day-care centers and home day-care operators, which they say is vital for parents, but many suggest that it will also take other changes to make the nation’s day-care system safer. Many states need to conduct more inspections and tighten licensing standards, they say.
“We totally believe parents should have access and that it should be online and readily available,” said Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. Still, the online system would be improved by better monitoring, Smith said. Otherwise, she said, “what parents see online is not going to be the full picture.”
A study by researchers at Wellesley College that focused on Broward County, Fla., found that the Internet system alone improved the quality of child care at centers serving low-income children. The study also found that inspectors produced more detailed critiques, in greater number.
“I definitely think it’s valuable,” said sociologist Julia Wrigley of the City University of New York, who has studied child-care fatalities. “I think very often inspection reports are buried in state files, and few parents understand they can have access to them.”
Child-care experts say that many parents are surprisingly uninformed about how child-care is monitored. Twenty-one states inspect home-based day-care operations less than once a year ó or not at all, Smith said. A majority of states allow home day-care providers to go without a license, and still others allow such businesses to open before an inspector checks the premises, Smith said.
At least 17 states have posted inspection reports, full or in part, online. In Virginia, where child-care inspection records went online in 2005 through the Department of Social Services, many parents say they take note of the infractions: an unlocked medicine cabinet, missing baby gates, lack of soap in a bathroom, caregivers found reading magazines or talking on cellphones. In one case, children were found restrained by snap belts and cords. In another, a child was forgotten in the back of a vehicle.
After each violation is a notation about what corrective action is to be taken.
“You can get more information about buying a car than you can about who is caring for your children,” said Karen Metivier-Carreiro, 44, a mother of two in suburban Fairfax County, Va. The online system “helps make people more accountable, and it also gives parents some leverage.”
Some parents point out that the online system allows them to check on safety without making an issue of it. The day-care world is a competitive place, they say, with years-long waiting lists at some places and a premium on spots for infants.
Julie Bindeman Belgard, 30, of suburban Rockville, Md., said that when she was expecting her first child, she found a day-care provider she liked, and they agreed that her baby would get a spot. But Belgard also let her know she wanted to check the provider’s record with the state, which took three to four weeks. When she contacted the provider again, her son’s spot was gone.
“My feeling was that she was a little put off by the background check,” Belgard said.
Child-care providers have mixed reactions to the online system.
Jim Kendzel, executive director of the National Child Care Association, which represents licensed centers, said the group does not oppose online records posting but urges states to also post responses from providers and a weighting factor “so the parent understands what is critical and what isn’t.”
“We totally believe in transparency for the parent, but if they’re going to put the information online, let them see the whole picture,” Kendzel said.
Monica Jackson, president of the Virginia Alliance of Family Child Care Associations, described the online system as “just another opportunity for us to do the best that we can” and noted that providers already post their most recent inspection reports in their day-care homes. “It’s tying in very well with the states trying to push programs to support children’s development,” she said.
Until the online system is working in Maryland ó later this year or early next ó parents must write letters to request information about complaints and violations. In Montgomery County, several parents said they were told to file Freedom of Information Act requests.
Jeanne Woodbridge, 38, of Gaithersburg said the new systems will be a welcome improvement. She recalled that when she searched for child care in 2004, it seemed impractical and cumbersome to write letters for records about potential providers.
An online system, she said, “would give you a peace of mind about where you’re placing your child and where they’re going to be for seven, eight or nine hours a day.”

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