By Nancy Cambria
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
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After 17 years of using the same rules, Missouri is considering revising the safety and licensing standards for the state's 2,200 child care centers and group homes.
A work group of about 40 met for the first time Tuesday in Columbia to consider reshaping the regulations — enacted in 1991 — that deal with everything from class enrollment size to professional development, hygiene and safety in the centers. If successful, the state expects to put the new rules on the books a year from now. It will then address rules for in-home day cares and other settings.
This is the second time in three years the state has attempted to revise the rules that some consider outdated and lax.
All of Missouri's eight neighboring states, for example, require their child care workers to take a basic first aid courses, and seven require CPR training for at least some workers. Missouri's workers, though required to have 12 hours of unspecified training a year, may begin their employment without basic health or safety instruction, and have no CPR or first aid training.
"We require this training of people who do our nails and our hair and the basic grooming of our dogs, but not to the care of our children," said Carol Scott, director of the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network, one of the members of the work group, which includes child care providers, policymakers and regulators.
Basic safety training is a critical issue for Steve and Shelley Blecha, whose baby Nathan died of suffocation last year when a caregiver put him down for a nap on his abdomen — a practice condemned by health professionals because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
A required course in infant safety would have likely saved his son's life, Steve Blecha said.
"How much more simple can it be?" he asked. "If he had been placed face up, he wouldn't have died."
In 2005, the Missouri Department of the Health and Senior Services, which oversees child care regulation in the state, attempted unsuccessfully to internally revise the rules for every type of provider at once. It failed to gain support from providers, who argued the changes would prove a financial hardship.
This time, the state is taking a different approach. In June it held five public hearings around the state to collect opinions from providers, parents, regulators, safety and education experts. Hired consultants with the National Association for Regulatory Administration then culled the opinions into a report that is now the backbone of the work group sessions, said Corinne Patton, one of the three consultants.
The proposals considered Tuesday included ways to strengthen employee background checks and capping the number of 4-year-olds allowed in a classroom at 20, and 5-year-olds at 32. There is currently no limit to the number of preschool-age children in a classroom at one time.
The group Tuesday also considered health and safety training of child care workers, including mandatory CPR and first aid certification, and a basic orientation covering state regulations.
Work group participants said Tuesday that they were making steady progress. Ann Bingham, director of Childgarden Child Development Center in St. Louis, said the state made a big effort to include providers from around the state in the process.
"We're really part of a group that's making the rules work for everyone from a management standpoint," she said.
Tuesday was the first of five work group sessions scheduled through December.
Scott said her organization plans to push for a review of the state's current policy allowing church- and school-based centers to remain license-exempt. Although these facilities follow fire codes, they don't have to follow licensing rules and aren't subject to inspections by regulators.
"There's a lot of energy in the state from a variety of stakeholders to have more school child care and the faith-based programs regulated. The question is, how high is the energy to keep things the way they are?" Scott said.
Although advocates of quality early childhood education said they applaud the drive to revise rules, some, such as Stephen Zwolak, director of the University City Children's Center, warned that Missouri is woefully behind the curve regarding training and early childhood education in its centers.
During its last legislative session, lawmakers did not advance a quality rating system proposal that would have ranked providers, rewarding those with strong curricula, educated teachers and learning-centered facilities.
Zwolak said the state needs to raise the bar, focusing also on teacher education. At his child care center, providers — called faculty — are given weekly professional development from early childhood experts on topics such as early literacy, child development and classroom practice. Yet, he said, the state is still struggling to get basic first aid approved.
"Right now, the state's developed standards as exactly that — the bare minimum," Zwolak said. "We devalue the value of our children with a system that looks only to the bottom."