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Child care crisis: Lawmakers introduce bill to increase ratios, some call it unsafe

Missoulian - 2/24/2021

How many children is too many for a child care provider to manage?

A bill to increase ratios of children to staff in licensed child care programs came before the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Safety Committee last week. Proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 142 agreed that solutions are needed to address Montana's shortage of affordable child care, but opponents said increasing the number of children in programs without adding more staff could endanger children.

The bill would increase the number of children allowed in a licensed family day care home from the current range of three to six children with one caregiver to a maximum of 10 children. It would also increase ratios in group day care homes from a range of seven to 12 children with two caregivers to 11 to 20 children with the same staffing.

Sen. Kenneth Bogner (R-Miles City) introduced the bill after talking with providers in his district about the challenges they face.

"They felt like they could do 10 safely in a family home and we looked at what other bordering states were doing," Bogner said. "Wyoming was doing a maximum of 10 in family child care homes so we felt like that was a good number to go with."

However, state leaders in childc are have noted that the National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends lower ratios than the bill proposes and that are required in states such as Wyoming.

"How in the world would you carry six infants and 14 children out of a house that caught on fire or some other major safety crisis?" Dana Lozier, a member of the Montana Child Care Association, asked at the hearing.

There are additional requirements for the ratios of children under the age of 2 that can be allowed in different types of programs. The bill does not aim to add more children under the age of 2, but would allow programs to serve more children who are older and would not add more staff. In Montana, there can not be more than six children under 2 years of age in a group day care home, and no more than three children under 2 years of age in a family day care home.

Kelly Rosenleaf, executive director for Child Care Resources covering Missoula, Mineral and Ravalli counties, opposes the bill. She does not believe the bill would increase the child care supply because it would be easier under the new ratios for group homes to change to family homes, slightly reduce the number of kids and lay off a staff member while making more money, she said.

Rosenleaf also noted that profit margins are slim for providers. She worries that programs may increase the number of children they are serving in an effort to make more money, while decreasing the number of infants they serve.

Lisa Mullen, owner of a group day care home in Miles City called Kids' Cave Childcare, said increasing ratios would allow her to pay staff more and retain staff. Mullen is one of the providers who worked with Bogner on the bill. She receives constant calls from families and does not know where to direct them.

"We're in like a day care desert," Mullen said in an interview. "Like Custer County, which is where I live, we have enough child care available to cover 13% of the child population."

In response to safety concerns, Mullen said she is more concerned about parents who have to turn to unlicensed facilities for care.

In Montana, parents can care for their own children and up to two other children part-time without a license. But Mullen and other child care leaders said that opens the door for other unlicensed care programs that often care for more kids full-time.

"Not making something readily available doesn't stop the need for it," Mullen said. "All it does is cause people to have to make back-alley decisions like, 'Oh, I guess we'll just put our kids in this unlicensed basement day care babysitter that has 25 kids because we don't have any other option right now.'"

With both sides of the bill agreeing that more needs to be done to improve child care options, opponents said they would like to explore other ideas.

"We don't think increasing the ratios is the appropriate way to combat our child care crisis," said Nanette Gilbertson, a lobbyist representing the Montana Advocates for Children, the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children, Headstart Association of Montana, the Montana Resource and Referral Network, Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies and Montana Kids Count.

"We do think there are other solutions out there and we'd be a willing partner to come to the table and talk about private-public partnerships and what the state could do to encourage businesses to have child cares," Gilbertson said.

Other changes, such as publicly funded preschool for the state, would provide care for 4-year-olds, reducing about 20% of the need for child care statewide and opening up spots for more children of other ages.

Rosenleaf said other proposals that have not gained Republican support to be brought forward as bills this session have included a proposal to require insurance companies that provide property insurance to residential rentals to allow home-based child care as compatible with residential use.

Another would have addressed homeowner restrictive covenants that outlaw any kind of home-based business, which prevent aspiring providers from being able to open new centers from their home.