A local lawmaker is again championing a Missouri day care safety bill that has repeatedly failed to gain traction amid opposition by a conservative lobby.
Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said this week she will again sponsor Nathan’s Law, a bill that has been proposed annually since 2009. The bill, among other things, takes aim at a licensing exemption allowing Missouri home day care providers to watch more young children without a license than the state limit of four.
“We know that when we put more young kids together under the supervision of one person, we know that tragedies occur. This can head this off before it happens,” Schupp said.
The bill’s proponents argue the exemption has long been a danger to children. A 2011 Post-Dispatch investigation found 41 children, mostly infants, died in unlicensed home day cares from 2007 through 2010, compared with four deaths in both licensed home day cares and licensed centers in the same time period. In many cases, poor supervision involving high numbers of children coupled with unsafe sleeping arrangements for the infants contributed to the accidental deaths.
But detractors such as the Missouri Family Network have said the proposed fix threatens the rights of families to care for their own children and their relatives in their own way, without government intervention. Some worry the bill opens the door to greater intrusions on families who choose to home school or opt out of early childhood programs.
Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network and a longtime lobbyist, said base philosophies differ on the issue, noting there’s a “legitimate interest on the part of the state to provide adequate protections against bad actors, but then you have the majority of families who have the need to raise their families according to their own right and style.”
Messer said he and Schupp have agreed to try to come to consensus on the issue, unlike previous sessions.
“We’re talking to see what kind of common ground we can agree on,” Messer said. “We’re not at the end of that. But I appreciate it greatly that she’s taking a proactive approach to reach out and she’s made some adjustments in the language that are positive, but we’re not far enough along yet.”
This is the fifth year Nathan’s Law has been proposed. Last year parts of it were rolled into another child care safety law called Sam Pratt’s Law that passed at the end of the session. That law gave judges the right to shut down illegal day cares where the child care provider has been charged with child abuse or neglect. It also raised the fines a local prosecutor can lodge against an illegal home day care and required unregulated child care providers to publicly post that they are unlicensed.
Even so, proponents of Nathan’s Law were disappointed the bill was stripped of a key proposal requiring home day care operators to include in their enrollment count any young children who are related to them — so disappointed the name Nathan’s Law was taken off the bill. Under current law, a home day care must be licensed if the provider watches more than four children. However, the law says a child care provider’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews do not have to be a part of that count.
That means, many home day care providers can remain unlicensed even though they are watching far more than four children. Eliminating the related-child exemption for younger children would more closely align Missouri with the majority of states nationwide. Most require related children who are younger than school age to be counted. For example, Oklahoma requires every child to be counted, while Illinois allows just one related child to be exempted from the count.
Schupp said this year’s version of the bill better clarifies the age at which a related child must be counted in a home day care enrollment. That is intended to better explain to in-home child care providers and home schoolers when licensing would apply to them. Under the revised bill, related “children who are eligible for enrollment in a public kindergarten or elementary school will not be considered in the number of children being cared for” in the home day care.
Schupp said this law has no affect on families who do not run day cares in their homes. But, for those who do, she said related children younger than school age require more supervision and should be in the enrollment count. If that enrollment goes above four, the caregiver should have a license and be subject to state oversight, she said.
“Of course we would never intervene in a family’s ability to watch their own children,” she said. “But once you bring in somebody from outside the family into your day care, that person who is paying for a service needs to be assured that service is provided in a safe way,” she said.
The law is named after Nathan Blecha, who died in 2007 at age 3 months after accidentally suffocating in some bedding while napping in a portable crib at an illegal home day care in Jefferson County.
The day Nathan died, the caregiver was watching four grandchildren and six unrelated children without a required license. Under state law the caregiver was breaking the state enrollment limit of four by two children, even though she was actually watching six additional children.
In the aftermath, Nathan’s parents learned that state regulators had no ability to shut down an illegal home day care, even where a child had died. Nor was the provider fined for running a rogue day care. A Post-Dispatch investigation of deaths in home day cares later found that illegal home day care operators, when discovered, were rarely fined and often continued to break the law.
Last summer the Post-Dispatch also reported on more than a dozen unlicensed home day cares catering to as many as 30 children a day that were being allowed to operate in rural Barry County. The county prosecutor there refused to fine them, despite being repeatedly notified by state regulators that providers were breaking state law. State regulators currently have no power to shut them down on their own.
Nathan’s Law would give the state Department of Health and Senior Services the power to shut down such chronic, illegal day cares.
Messer said his network backs a proposal to give the state more power to shut down illegal home day cares operating without a required license. He said the vast majority of accidents and crimes against children occur in blatantly illegal day cares that operate without proper licensing. That has unfairly affected legally unlicensed home day cares that operate safely with the related child exemption, Messer said.
But Schupp said Nathan’s death highlights a critical flaw in the exemption that can lead to child care providers watching too many children and making poor safety decisions. Nathan’s mother, Shelley Blecha, said she believes poor supervision was a factor in her son’s death, even though it was ruled an accident.
“I think if there hadn’t been so many kids there, the caregiver would have been more attentive to Nathan and she would have noticed that the bedding in his bed was all smashed up and loose against his face, and that she would have gone on and checked him earlier,” Blecha said.
Schupp is currently lobbying for co-sponsors. She said she already has bipartisan support.