Seattle is chasing the dream of universal high-quality prekindergarten, and the state is not too far behind. If realized, tens of millions of dollars would be injected into child care in the coming years.
But before that bill comes due, parents need to trust that their kids will be safe in state-licensed facilities. It’s tough to build trust when mentions of child care this legislative session are mostly coupled with the words “infant death.”
Last May, 5-month-old Eve Uphold apparently suffocated in a Greenwood child-care center. She had been tightly swaddled and left, unattended for about an hour, in a playpen with a loose waterproof mat.
Her parents checked references for provider Rhonda Hopson, but the Upholds didn’t know one critical detail about her history: a child had died in her care in 2001 under troubling circumstances.
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It’s not their fault. The state doesn’t make it easy. In fact, I found it easier to find health violations at my neighborhood restaurant than about problems at my kid’s child-care center.
In the 2001 incident, 6-month-old Graham Hazard died in a pillow-filled bed while Hopson ran next door to give neighbors tips on carpet cleaning. She’d violated state rules, and state records show that details of her story shifted. Yet she kept her state license, until Eve died.
The Upholds and Hazards recently testified in Olympia for a bill that would require the Department of Early Learning (DEL), which licenses and monitors child-care facilities, to hold a formal review of deaths and near-deaths.
Andy Hazard said his grief “was like a pit of sadness that would open up and swallow me.” He and his wife, Barbara, now see that they had “naively trusted” state licensers.
“When I first learned of Eve’s death, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt, as though, had we done more, perhaps her death would’ve been preventable,” she said. “No parent should have to feel that way.”
There’s been an estimated 37 deaths in child-care facilities since 1996, making these rare but potentially valuable reviews.
Just as helpful would be a heavy injection of transparency, to go along with all that money being proposed.
Child-care records — valid complaints, staff background checks and inspection reports — are supposed to be posted on a DEL website, called Child Care Check. But efforts to make good on that promise look spotty, at best.
I checked the four licensed facilities my kids attended and found that three had violations; a fourth was closed, and DEL made a decision to remove records for closed facilities.
But instead of links, or even summaries, I got nothing more than the dry bureaucratic language of the state rule being violated. No records, no narrative, even though the documents are public records.
In one incident, which occurred while my daughter was in the facility, the center violated a state rule requiring immediate reporting of a death, hospitalization, sexual abuse or serious illness. I had no idea it had happened. Nor did other parents, even though such reports are supposed to be posted.
“This shouldn’t be ‘Where’s Waldo’ for parents,” sighed child-care advocate Stu Jacobson, who won a prestigious Jefferson Award for his two decades of work to make child care safer.
Amy Blondin of DEL said the agency “walks a fine line” between transparency and providing parents with “outdated or irrelevant information.” She notes that a new five-tiered child-care rating system, called Early Achievers, is rolling out statewide.
That’s good, but when it comes to the safety of their kids, parents want all the information. When I asked Jacobson about the spotty disclosure of records, he had a theory: Transparency is bad for business, and it forces the state agency to defend their oversight.
Early learning advocates, unions and nonprofits have sought expansion of child-care funding for years, and now that the day is drawing near, “They need to protect the business piece of child care,” he said.
Taxpaying parents asked to open their wallets for expanded child care also have a need. We need to not be treated like children.
Jonathan Martin’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com