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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Head Start programs, such as the one offered at this CANI center, must follow rigorous background checks for employees. If legislation pending in the General Assembly is approved, the checks will be required in all taxpayer-supported programs, not just licensed centers.

For kids: Regulation needed

If Indiana lawmakers need more evidence that church-based child care programs need stronger regulation, they can look to a recent incident in Greenwood. An inspector found a church official previously involved in a substantiated case of child sexual abuse at the Little Angels Daycare and Preschool.

Police said the official – a church deacon – had been accused of inappropriately touching a child. State law prescribes that anyone involved in a substantiated case of abuse must stay away from children.

Young families looking for safe and affordable care must be able to depend on common-sense regulations ensuring their children are protected. Indiana’s lax child care regulations attract too many operators more concerned with making money than serving families. It’s time to put an end to unqualified operators hiding behind religious fronts.

Fortunately, the work of the General Assembly’s interim study commission on child care set the groundwork for progress this year. In addition, strong voices are calling for better regulation. Business leaders from Eli Lilly Co., PNC, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and more are making the case that quality care allows parents to be better employees. Some church leaders, such as Pastor Michael Bowling of Indianapolis, are bravely standing up to dispel the lie that regulation threatens their religious freedom.

With those efforts, three bills advanced this week. House Bill 1494 and Senate Bill 114 both include requirements for caregivers to undergo national criminal history background checks if the provider accepts federal Child Care Development Fund vouchers. Licensed centers and federally funded Head Start programs all meet those requirements, but unlicensed homes and child care ministries are exempt.

SB 305, co-authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, also was approved. It outlines procedures for violations of regulations. Regrettably, an amendment approved Wednesday removed language establishing child/staff ratio requirements in programs that accept vouchers.

Dianna Wallace, executive director of the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children, said the ratios are key to child care quality.

“(A program) must have sufficient staffing to provide the appropriate guidance and education,” she said. “It’s about parents – they need to feel assured there is a sufficient number of teachers to educate and care for their children in their absence. It’s a safety and health issue.”

While Wallace is discouraged by the elimination of ratio requirements, she said her organization is “elated” by other legislative developments, including progress with HB 1004, which establishes a pilot preschool program.

“It’s the first time we’ve had multiple testimonies from various corporations encouraging the state – within fiscal restraints – to make this a reality for at-risk, low-income children,” she said. “We’re excited by the conditions they’ve put in for eligible providers, including Paths to Quality requirements, an evidence-based curriculum and requirements to report outcomes.”

The bill is precariously tied to a voucher program, and its $7.2 million price tag still could be too much a hurdle for Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, who hasn’t yet made the connection between quality pre-K, school success and businesses. But the growing awareness of the state’s dismal record in providing early learning could make a difference.

Proactive approaches in offering quality programs, such as the preschool pilot, also lessen the need for regulation, as low-income parents have the opportunity to take advantage of better options for their children. In the meantime, however, those regulations are needed to ensure Indiana’s most vulnerable residents are protected.