February 1, 2013

Child care legislation aims to improve safety, quality care

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

State lawmakers are aiming to improve child care standards through a series of proposals this year.

“The Church supports the effort as a prudent measure to ensure child safety and quality care,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) executive director, who serves as the official spokesman on state and federal issues for the Church in Indiana.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, plans to tackle some of the changes. Holdman, who serves as chairman of the Interim Committee on Child Care, spent the past several months studying child care issues.

Members of the child care panel became aware of a variety of concerns with state child care laws. One problem is there are child care providers who are registered and operating under church ministry designation, but are not actually churches or ministries.

“Some groups are operating in less than wholesome and sometimes dangerous environments,” Tebbe said.

“When people or organizations that are not authentic churches or ministries operate under the guise of a ministry, they do a disservice to not only those they claim to be serving, but are tarnishing the reputation of churches and authentic ministries that are providing quality care.”

Holdman said he took his committee on a road trip, and visited a child care facility operated by a husband and wife who had formed a nonprofit corporation and registered as an exempt church child care provider.

“When we visited the child care center, we found two adult women caring for 56 children,” he said. “The business enterprise was quite profitable.”

The senator said that within a five-year period, they had collected $10 million from child care vouchers from their child care business.

“This business enterprise was avoiding a lot of costs associated with safety compliance standards like adult-child ratios because they were operating under a church ministry exemption,” he said, “but were doing so in name only.”

Holdman explained that current law doesn’t define a church, but rather allows any nonprofit with the word ministry in its title to operate a child care facility as a registered exempt church or ministry.

“Anyone could start a nonprofit organization with the word ministry in its name and get the church exemption,” Holdman said. “These are child care business enterprises that should not be getting the church exemption.”

Holdman said the religious exemption was put in place to allow churches to provide care without having to meet the same stringent requirements as other licensed centers, because it could place a cost-prohibitive burden on some churches that could not comply with certain building standards.

Yet he said many legitimate ministries are providing high-quality care, and have their own safety standards in place.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, is authoring a bill to clarify the definition of a church or ministry for child care purposes which allows legitimate churches or ministries to continue to operate as they are, yet would require child care businesses to comply with safety standards of legally licensed child care centers.

“It is not our intent to burden churches through this legislation, but to help provide safe, quality care for children,” Holdman said.

Tebbe is tracking at least nine bills this year that will address certain nuances of improving child care.

Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, is authoring a proposal requiring certain child care providers to get national criminal history background checks to protect children from previous sex offenders.

There are three proposals, one in the House, also authored by Summers, and two in the Senate to improve quality care for lower-income families who are receiving child care vouchers by requiring providers who receive vouchers to meet basic safety standards and provide activities that enhance early childhood development.

Holdman is also authoring a proposal to assist early childhood development by offering a tax credit to families who choose to send their child to a high-quality child care provider that meets certain curriculum and safety standards.

Indiana law currently allows at least three types of child care providers: 1) a licensed child care center; 2) a licensed child care home; and 3) an unlicensed, registered child care ministry. Under current law, each type of provider comes with certain requirements.

Holdman said he is optimistic that lawmakers can get something passed this year to improve child care safety, but encouraged state residents to contact their lawmakers and urge their support for improved child care safety.

“The sad thing is sometimes something bad has to happen before a law is passed,” Holdman said. “There are some problems in Indiana with child care safety, and we need to get this resolved before a child gets hurt.

“As Christians, I think Jesus calls us to protect and defend the least among us—and those are our children. We have an obligation, and it is our Christian duty to do so.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org. )

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