Information on just about any consumer service is posted online these days, but when it comes to the safety of child-care providers in Massachusetts, parents confront a black hole.
Massachusetts failed to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to post child-care safety records online, a requirement under a 2014 federal law meant to give parents better information about early education options.
The state recently received a one-year extension to post the inspection reports on a new “user friendly” website it launched last year, and officials say they are pushing to get the job done.
“We are fully committed to providing families with information that would empower them to make the best and appropriate choices for their children with respect to care,” said Tom Weber, commissioner of the state’s Department of Early Education and Care.
But parents searching for child care are frustrated, saying they can’t understand why the state doesn’t make safety information more accessible.
“You are putting your child in the care of complete strangers, and it’s a little bit nerve-racking — especially if there isn’t a lot of information out there to reassure you that you are making the right choice,” said Pamela Vaughan, a Woburn mother of three children.
The new requirement is part of a sweeping law intended to boost child-care quality. The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act required states to conduct unannounced inspections of all licensed child-care providers each year and to post the reports on a consumer-friendly website where parents could easily find them.
Massachusetts has volumes of documents on licensed child-care providers. But the records aren’t easily accessible to parents.
The state’s child-care website directs consumers seeking inspection information to call one of the state’s six regional offices. When the Globe called two of these sites, staffers said they were allowed only to read results of inspections over the phone.
They said consumers seeking a copy of the documents must submit a public records request, then wait while staffers review each page to ensure children’s identities are redacted.
“It could take awhile, given the workload,” said an employee in the state’s North Shore office.
The employee, and one in the state’s Worcester office, read from inspection and complaint findings that cited programs for a wide array of problems, from leaving a child unattended for five minutes in a fenced playground and failing to have emergency contact information for some parents, to expired fire suppression equipment and a worker who smelled like marijuana and dropped a child.
The state subcontracts with seven child-care resources and referral agencies to help families find care, especially those receiving state subsidies. The agencies provide tips, in nine different languages, about questions parents should ask providers when searching for child care and how to apply for financial assistance. But even they don’t have access to the inspection reports.
Kim Dion, program director at Child Care Resources, the agency in Worcester, said safety is among parents’ top concerns when they call with questions about a provider. She said the agency refers parents to the state’s regional licensing office.
While deaths and serious injuries at child-care centers are rare, Massachusetts recorded three fatalities this year, as of mid-December, and 303 reports of major injuries, according to the Department of Early Education and Care. This information is also supposed to be posted on the state’s website.
The 2014 federal law requires major upgrades in the way states monitor their network of child-care programs, including required training for providers about sudden infant death syndrome, first aid, and CPR. It also mandates criminal background checks for all child-care staffers, including those who don’t work directly with children.
The mandate to provide a “consumer friendly” website, however, has stumped the state’s bureaucracy. In its latest update to federal regulators, Massachusetts said it has the technical ability to post the long-awaited inspection and monitoring reports but is still grappling with how to define the “plain language” required for these reports.
Weber, the commissioner, said in an interview that the problem is complex.
“This information has historically been collected for compliance purposes, and it now has to be collected and presented in a consumer-friendly way,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the federal Administration for Children and Families said Massachusetts will be required to file a Corrective Action Plan ensuring it will complete the work by next Sept. 30. No further extension will be granted, she said.
Exactly how many other states also failed to post these consumer reports is unclear because federal regulators are still reviewing each state’s actions, she said. A Google search of other New England states suggests others are struggling as well: Only Vermont appears to have an easily searchable website that includes results of state inspections.
Massachusetts launched what it calls a “more user-friendly” website, minus inspection reports, last year that includes a searchable directory of child-care providers.
But several parents who have searched online for child-care options recently said they never stumbled on the state’s site.
“It’s a lot of Googling, just trying to come up with locations,” said Emily MacIntyre, a Hamilton mother who has one daughter and who scoured the Internet and used social media and mothers’ groups when she searched in the Reading area in 2016 and again last year when her family moved to Hamilton.
Michelle McCready, deputy executive director of Child Care Aware of America, a national research and advocacy organization, said most state websites are poorly advertised because the money is often needed elsewhere.
“Parents don’t even know there’s a resource,” McCready said. “We often say parents have to be their own investigators.”