When Helene Padget watched the four children playing in her bonus room, she wondered how much longer she could make a living in child care. The Vancouver woman has run the business out of her home in the Sunnyside neighborhood for nearly 40 years, and said she has typically kept rates below the market.
“I haven’t raised my rates in 15 years, and I think I could be well under what I should be charging,” she said.
She may not have an option soon. New state rules aim to streamline Washington’s diverse market of child care, putting a greater emphasis on certification and the safety of the facilities themselves. While in-home care providers agree child safety is paramount, they also say they will incur higher costs to stay compliant.
Karen Hart, president of the Family Child Care Providers union, said she worried the moves are putting child care providers in a box, preventing them from having the flexibility to meet individual children’s needs.
“Family home providers feel the state is trying to fit a one-sized-fits-all system,” she said. “Parents aren’t looking for one-sized-fits-all. Kids need different styles and curriculum.”
The state, on the other hand, says that setting more uniform standards should make it easier for public and private initiatives to give more funding to child care operations.
“Businesses would have more confidence about what they’re investing in. Taxpayers would have more confidence,” said Frank Ordway, assistant director of government and community relations for the newly named Department of Children, Youth and Families. “When you had different sets of rules and different interpretations, it made it very difficult for parents, and it made it difficult for dollars to flow at times.”
‘Like a second home’
Tawney’s Tots has all the hallmarks of a day care, but it is also the home where Padget and her husband live.
The 2,700-square-foot house has an L-shaped yard lined with bark chips to buffer any trips or falls off a small, colorful play structure. Past a sliding glass door, which beeps whenever someone comes or goes, is a carpeted addition to the house that offers an array of board games, books and arts and crafts.
“We’re like an extension of homes. We’re like a second home to them,” Padget said. “A lot of parents, they don’t want their children in a day care center.”
Her frustration is not with any competitor in her industry, but with the new state rules. Some won’t impact her, but Padget worries that she and her husband will have to take out loans to retrofit their home in order to be licensed by the state.
“I think they’ve gone overboard. We get the feeling they want us to bubble wrap these children,” she said. “No scrapes, no bumps. But that’s part of childhood — learning what their bodies can and can’t do, and assess risk.”
Rules proposed in May could demand that all providers, whether they are centers or in-home providers, meet certain safety guidelines. The changes call for softer furnishings, storage areas for children’s personal belongings and fences with self-closing and self-latching gates.
Ordway said the state is not asking providers anything unreasonable.
“If you’re running a day care center, you cannot have a glass hutch that is not secure. We’re not going to allow that,” he said. “But, are we asking people to bolt down their recliners? Of course not. But they are running care and educational institutions, and you wouldn’t let your kid go to a center that isn’t safe.”
Providers also worry about increased education requirements for child care providers to earn their certifications. While Padget has an associate degree that will keep her in compliance, other providers worry that the cost of going to school will be too steep. Roxanne Pera, a provider in Vancouver, said she would have to raise her prices to help pay for additional training, and she worries that the requirements would just go up again in a few years.
“I’m sorry, do you need a bachelor’s degree to provide child care? We can teach kids basic skills they need to learn, and a lot of us have them ready for kindergarten,” she said.
Ordway said classes to reach the new level of certification are already taught in high schools. He added that other trainings that providers have undergone could be grandfathered in. That portion of the proposed rules are currently in negotiation.
Ultimately, how the changes will develop remains to be seen.
Since the proposals were released in May, the public is allowed to comment through the end of July. The proposals will then go before more state officials to make sure they don’t conflict with existing rules, and then the rules land on the desk of the director of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.
Ordway said there is a lot of time for providers to get their voices heard before anything is officially changed. If the changes do go through, there will be a grace period that gives providers a window to come into compliance. And he said he understands their concerns.
“For a lot of these folks, they’re running small businesses and don’t have a lot of time to deal with this stuff,” he said. “The department may as well be on the moon, for all of their concerns. I can understand why providers react.”
Providers are hopeful their concerns will be heard and they caution that the changes could impact families. Not only could prices rise, as Pera said, but some operators could start offering services without being licensed — potentially creating a greater danger to children.
Pera, who had run her day care for nearly 30 years, shut down two weeks ago because of the proposed education requirements. She would open again if the rules change, but she’s not optimistic that will happen.
“We’re either going to end up with a lot less providers, or day care is going to become so expensive that parents are going to have a hard time paying for it,” she said.
Columbian reporter Katie Gillespie contributed to this article.