Tragic Child Care Incidents: Wake-Up Call for Delaware

March 18th, 2024

Category: Early Childhood Education

At a Glance...

-A handful of incidents across the state have shone a spotlight on safety and abuse risks at child care centers.
-Child care workers in Delaware are not required to earn a license before joining the profession. They are historically underpaid and lack access to health or mental health benefits.
-Stronger workforce investments, plus policies on licensing and substitutes, are among possible solutions.

Although Delaware has some of the strongest licensing policies in terms of what types of child care are required to be licensed (almost no program is exempt) and what the requirements are for the workforce, several incidents of injury and even death of children have occurred in recent years. These include murder, smothering, physical abuse and unsafe sleep and feeding care, and falling into a septic tank.

Health and safety complaints to the Office of Child Care Licensing are up 30 percent over the last year, according to the Department of Education, which oversees Child Care Licensing. And, many Licensing Specialists positions sit vacant, so complaints cannot be investigated quickly.

Delaware is not unique in the health and safety risks to young children. As a state, we must address staffing and investment issues underlying these incidents. Infants are most likely to be harmed and are exposed to the least educated, lowest paid educators. These children are unable to speak, get away, or defend themselves.

Why is this happening?

As we’ve written in this space, Delaware and the nation can do more to support the child care workforce.

Child care has faced crisis level staffing shortages, which cause programs to:

  • Close classrooms or close their business altogether, which decreases supply for families
  • Hire any candidates who come to them without a competitive pool

 

The state benefits system does not include early educators. Stress and burnout from home and work can take their toll on anyone, let alone someone working with screaming infants and without access to trauma/mental health resources. Most make minimum wage and many qualify for public assistance.

There is no substitute pool for early educators, so when someone is out, administrators cover their classroom, which means there are limited administrators who can provide oversight into classrooms to ensure health and safety protocols are being followed.

Early educators are not required to earn a license before joining the profession. Each program who hires an educator must review independent background checks and verify qualifications.

What can be done?

Some work is underway, including moving to an electronic system of child care licensing and professional registry (the state has an RFP out for these services). Today in 2024, Delaware still uses paper licensing forms and records to maintain health and safety of young children. Advocates argue that accelerating this process would be extremely helpful.

State systems and program investments include:

  1. Invest in early care and education at the true cost of quality. The state does not even invest at the level to cover basic operational costs for programs following minimum state standards, such as minimum wage—let alone quality. Programs cannot pay and retain their staff with this low level of investment. Investing more would create a larger pool of educators and allow programs to be more selective.
  2. Create a substitute pool like this one in Washington that can be shared among providers.
  3. Limit which adults can be alone with children, including removing the ability to leave interns (who have only three credits and 15 hours of training) alone with children above age one.
  4. Better support licensing services and employees in Delaware, so they can monitor child care more often. A better-staffed, better-compensated state licensing department would allow for more follow-ups and more unannounced visits to centers. This would require a pay scale similar to the ones used by the Delaware Department of Education.

For early educators,

  1. Require early educators to be professionally licensed by the state, where their data is maintained centrally and their license can be revoked upon inappropriate behavior.
  2. Close loopholes in employment reporting requirements so an applicant’s employment history and records are available to future employers.
  3. Provide access to the state health care benefit system—allow child care providers to access the state system by paying an administrative fee, like fire companies can now.

 

Our families deserve to have safe spaces for their children so they can work, and children—who cannot speak up for themselves—deserve our protection, attention, and investment.




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Author:
Madeleine Bayard

mbayard@rodelde.org

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