Experts say Massachusetts day care needs more state oversight

Julie Jette

During World War II, as their parents built ships in the Fore River shipyard, the first class of children went to play at Jack N’ Jill Child Care Center.

In six decades since, the center has put up three more centers and built up ample expertise. Yet they have also come to rely on the state, namely its licensors, for guidance to run a safe, effective program.

 “They don’t come in and try to find problems,” said Kelley Joyce, who has been at Jack ‘N Jill’s for 17 years, now as executive vice president. “They bring you solutions.”

Joyce wishes, though, inspectors could spend more time. But to do so, they need more help.

For, compared to many states, such solutions are few in Massachusetts – because of the paucity of licensors, the state’s first line of defense against child abuse, neglect and mistreatment.

Massachusetts’ parents entrust about 175,000 children to 10,960 licensed child care providers each work day, assuming that state regulation and oversight will help keep their kids safe and enriched while they earn a living.

But with only 78 state employees directly overseeing child care – a ratio of one inspector to 252 programs – some child care experts say the state doesn’t have enough workers to inspect programs as often as they should.

The ratio of inspectors to programs falls drastically short of the 1-to-50 recommended by the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies. And far from the group’s recommendation of four visits per program per year, Massachusetts licensors often go two or three years between visits, unless there is a self-reported incident or outside complaint.

 “Our position, first and foremost, is standards without enforcement are hollow,” said Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies.

Few question the state’s high standards for its day cares. But investing resources, especially manpower to probe and protect children is another thing.

Mimi Gordon, an inspector who is president of the chapter of the Service Employees Union International Local 509 representing employees at the state Department of Early Education and Care, said the state’s stronger standards demand better oversight, because it takes longer educate programs about them and more attention from inspectors to enforce them.

 “The better the standards, the more people you need to enforce that,” Gordon said. “All licensors carry workloads way exceeding what the (national) standard is.”

Inspectors fewer, busier

The state’s goal is to visit every program once a year, but officials acknowledged that at current staffing levels, it has to prioritize inspections of programs that have received complaints. And it’s a situation that has only gotten worse.

Early Education and Care officials said that, due to budget cuts in 2003, they have 10 percent fewer inspectors than they once did.

 “(Budget cuts) were a significant blow to really monitor as closely as we would like,” said Matt Veno, a spokesman for the agency. (Veno added the situation should improve given the agency’s plans to hire three additional inspectors next year.)

Dena Papanikolaou, general counsel for the department, said the agency tries to do more frequent inspections of new programs, or those with complaints.

Last year, state inspectors investigated 2,336 complaints or “incidents” – problems that are reported by the child care-programs themselves – and required programs to take corrective action in 1,005 cases. After reviews by licensors, eight programs had their licenses temporarily suspended and nine had them permanently revoked.

“The complaints do run the gamut,” Papanikolaou said. “Obviously something extremely serious, such as shaken baby – that’s where the agency’s approach would be drastic or severe.”

Papanikolaou said with most complaints, the agency first tries to assist the program in the way of training, reviewing standards, or by requiring specific changes.

Providers must report injuries or accidents – if, for example, a child falls and needs stitches.

“If we don’t get these self-reports in, we might visit them more often,” Papanikolaou said.

Smith said parents are often surprised to learn how infrequently programs are inspected.

“We’ve done many focus groups around the country, and parents without exception say ‘well of course it’s inspected,’ they just assume everything else in this country is inspected, so why not child care?” she said.

Like Joyce, Michelle Manganaro, director of Pilgrim Child Care in Duxbury, says more licensors are needed to offer advice, ensure safety and particularly look after new programs and those with less knowledgeable teachers.

Manganaro says she would like to see more political attention paid to the lack of licensors.

“If I were a politician or working on Beacon Hill on child-care issues, I would absolutely want more licensors,” she said.

Julie Jette may be reached at

The Patriot Ledger