A Brookline day-care facility is abruptly shut down by state officials, citing a host of health violations and failure to perform required staff background checks. And yet days before it closed, it was still getting glowing reviews and a three-star rating on Yelp.
This isn’t the way the system is supposed to work — not after a sweeping new federal law went into effect starting at the end of 2016. States, including Massachusetts, were given the admittedly difficult job of making it easier for parents to access quality day care, policing and inspecting those facilities, making that information easily accessible to parents, and providing a hotline for complaints.
The case of Strawberry Child Care – involving, first, its Watertown location, where a 5-month-old died last September, and then its Brookline branch, closed earlier this month – is what happens when things go wrong, when the state fails to live up to its obligations and parents are left to navigate the murky waters of child care on their own.
The September death at the Watertown center, where an infant girl lay unattended for long periods of time and staff failed to administer CPR, exposed shoddy record-keeping and the outright falsification of CPR certifications for center staff.
The state then put the Brookline facility under an enrollment freeze — which the center ignored. Subsequent inspections found the sanitation and record-keeping violations. Faced with imminent legal action by the state, the center closed its doors, leaving 16 families to start the new year with yet another hunt for child care.
Subsequent Globe reporting has found that the federal law has been a mixed blessing in one other way — it requires at least one unannounced inspection every year of some 9,000 state-licensed programs. However, those inspections are now generally a far more abbreviated version than the full-day inspections the state used to do every two to three years.
A computerized system, rather than the paper-based licensing system, has made the process faster and more reliable. But inspectors are still carrying high caseloads — averaging 113 per inspector for child-care centers (up from 90 in 2014) and 212 for home-based care (that’s actually down from some 300 back in 2013).
The fact remains that a federal law “to encourage States to provide consumer education information to help parents make informed choices about child care services” and aimed, as its regulations insist, “to make results of monitoring available in a consumer friendly and easily accessible manner,” doesn’t come close to doing that here.
Massachusetts got a one-year extension on posting inspection records online, which means it will be next fall before parents can access information the new law mandates – including deaths or injuries. There were, for the record, three deaths and some 300 reported serious injuries at state-licensed facilities last year.
Vermont, on the other hand, has a website that not only includes inspection reports, but also its own five-star rating system — something Massachusetts should consider. It certainly beats depending on Yelp, no?
Even though the federal law passed in 2014, it gave states until October 2018 to be in full compliance. Massachusetts, a leader in quality child care in so many ways, remains behind the curve on monitoring care and sharing that information. And when it comes to our kids’ development, a year or two or three, can make a huge difference.
It’s time for the Commonwealth to make good on a promise to deliver a consumer-friendly child care website and effective monitoring. Our kids can’t wait.