MONTGOMERY, AL., -- A national study on the effects of unlicensed child care reports that Alabama's policy of exempting some child care programs from meeting basic standards jeopardizes the health, safety, and well being of children. Alabama is one of fourteen states that allows unlicensed child care facilities to operate, and Alabama is among the two most lenient (along with Arkansas) in allowing extensive exceptions to meeting common basic standards.
Sophia Bracy Harris, Executive Director of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama, says, "If we believe that a set of minimum standards for child care is necessary to protect the health, safety, and well being of children, then why do we choose to protect some children and not others?"
Underprotected, Undersupported: Low-Income Children at Risk, was developed by the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California. The study covers the conditions of unlicensed child care across the country and focuses on Alabama, California, and Maryland as case studies. The report was compiled from federal and state government data, and interviews with dozens of advocates, providers and administrators.
According to Dominique Apollon, principal author and researcher for the report, "The facts tell us about the increase in unlicensed centers. The facts tell us even the Alabama exemption law itself is being stretched. That it's not being enforced."
The number of unlicensed centers in Alabama that operate without state minimum standards and oversight has risen by 31% during this decade, while the number of licensed centers has steadily decreased by 17%. Currently 40% of Alabama's 2,000 child care centers are unlicensed. The starkest example is in Jefferson County, where 213 unlicensed centers far exceed in number the 159 licensed centers.
While some unlicensed childcare centers are of excellent quality, the increasing numbers of unlicensed centers in the state include some with disturbingly unsafe and unhealthy practices. In response to alarming conditions observed in Mobile County, the health department stepped in and imposed the minimum standards for health and safety that the state refused to do. Except in Mobile, no one monitors unlicensed child care facilities.
Child advocates wonder why any state would shield a particular sphere of its child care industry from government regulation on even the common basic health and safety standards. Mary Davis, Director of Childcare Resource Network in North Alabama, declares, "We gotta say what is best for the child. And minimum standards are the minimum for what we're doing."
The report makes a number of policy recommendations: abolishing exemptions nation-wide, strengthening licensing requirements, and improving transparency and record-keeping in state governments.