Deb Arcaro of Country Fun Child Care reads to children Wednesday at her in-home day care in Gorham. Arcaro said she likes some of the day care rule changes proposed by the state, but objects to others. “In some cases, the (existing) rules tell us how to run our business. That’s not what regulations should be about,” she said. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The state is proposing to relax rules governing in-home child care facilities, allowing them to have fewer employees and requiring less CPR and first aid training while potentially limiting inspections and the amount of information posted online.

Child care advocates are criticizing the move by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, saying it would weaken oversight and potentially put children at risk.

The plan is likely to be implemented because it is being done on an emergency basis while the Legislature is mostly out of session, said Rita Furlow, senior policy analyst with the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of children.

“If I’m dropping my child off with a day care, I want to make sure that they are safe with them when I walk out that door,” Furlow said.

A hearing is set for 4 p.m. Thursday in Augusta before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Among the changes, Furlow said, would be to decrease staff-to-child ratios in some circumstances, not require CPR and first aid training before workers started their jobs, and not mandate that inspection reports be posted online. Another potential problem, Furlow said, is that the new rule would eliminate the current requirement that DHHS conduct unannounced inspections within six to 18 months after licensing. The new rule says the department would “generally” conduct unannounced inspections. Scheduled inspections still would occur under the new rules.

“We are very concerned about safety and quality,” said Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

Furlow said “it’s mind-boggling” that DHHS would weaken regulations, considering a 2014 case in Lyman in which the state allowed a day care center to operate despite reports that children were being hit, shoved onto the floor and force-fed.

Deb Arcaro holds Hayden Speed while Chloe Mason and Harper Speed play Wednesday. A hearing on proposed rule changes for in-home day care is set for 4 p.m. Thursday in Augusta. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

ONLY IN-HOME DAY CARE AFFECTED

After the Portland Press Herald published reports that DHHS failed to properly sanction Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman despite widespread reports of abuse, DHHS made several reforms, including increasing inspections and requiring that inspection and licensing reports be posted online. DHHS officials acknowledged to the Press Herald that the state fell short in the Sunshine case.

Sunshine, which has since closed, was an outside-the-home day care center. Those centers would not be affected by the proposed rule changes, but many children, especially in rural areas, are served by in-home family day cares, which can serve a maximum of 12 children.

There are about 2,000 day care facilities, including both in-home and day care centers, in Maine.

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said that streamlining regulations would help increase access to child care in rural Maine.

“A strategic goal of the department is to increase the number of family child care providers statewide, thereby increasing affordability and accessibility of child care,” Edwards said in a prepared statement.

Deb Arcaro, a Gorham family child care provider, said she likes some of the changes and objects to others.

For instance, she said she doesn’t like that fire drills would only have to be conducted every other month, rather than monthly.

But Arcaro said she supports a change in definitions that would classify 2-year-olds as preschoolers rather than infants when determining the maximum number of children that can be cared for. Currently, children under 2½ years old must be counted as infants, requiring more staff per child.

Deb Arcaro of Country Fun Child Care leans over to talk with 3-year-old Harper Speed, center, while playing in the backyard Wednesday at Country Fun Child Care in Gorham. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“Developmentally, I don’t see much difference between a 2-year-old and a 2½-year-old,” Arcaro said.

SOME CHANGES VIEWED AS HELPFUL

The staff-to-child ratio shifts depending on the age of the children being cared for, so that infants up to age 2½ require one staff person for every four children, while preschoolers can have an 8-to-1 staff-to-child ratio.

Williams said another change would permit excluding the children of the child care provider in determining the staff-to-child ratio. In some cases, if the child care provider had infant children and also was trying to run a day care, it would be difficult to oversee the children.

“The staff-to-child ratios are really a good indicator of quality,” Williams said.

Sasha Shunk, a Portland in-home child care owner, said many years ago she operated a child care where her own children didn’t count against the staff-to-child ratio. When the state changed the rules and started counting the owner’s children in the ratio, she noticed a change for the better.

“It definitely helped the quality of the program,” Shunk said.

Arcaro, however, said there are other proposed changes that would be helpful and allow for more flexibility. For instance, under the new rules she could hire a 16-year-old who could watch the children for a few hours while she ran errands, which would not be permitted under current rules.

“In some cases, the (existing) rules tell us how to run our business. That’s not what regulations should be about,” Arcaro said.

Edwards, at DHHS, said the new rules are more focused and that some sections were removed simply because they are already state law.

“The purpose of the Family Child Care rulemaking was to streamline the rule to focus on the health and safety of the children in care,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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