The number of licensed family child-care providers in Minnesota has dropped 20% since 2014, prompting concerns that the state's efforts to protect children in care from deaths and injuries have led to excessive regulation that is driving people out of the business.

Parents of infants are struggling to find openings, as are families in rural Minnesota, where many veteran providers are closing and their young replacements last only a few years before burning out, child-care advocates said.

"I drove my child 45 miles a day, one way ... for a year because we don't have day care" in town, said Erin Johnson-Balstad, an Argyle, Minn., mother. "I know mothers who talk with [child-care] providers first about when they'll have an opening so they can have a baby."

Johnson-Balstad is a rural parent representative on a legislative task force that held its first meeting last week to confront the withering family child-care industry.

Dubbed the "quiet crisis" by business leaders, the decline has coincided with intensified state and county efforts to reduce incidents of neglect and maltreatment at family day cares. That campaign has worked by one key measure: The number of deaths in Minnesota child care has declined from an average of 11 per year from 2006 through 2012, to three per year since then.

But family child-care providers and advocates say many inspectors and regulators are going too far, enforcing unreasonable standards that have little to do with safety.

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said she helped create the task force after personally intervening on behalf of child-care providers she believed were unfairly penalized by inspectors. She said it took months to clear the name of one provider who was written up for a water heater that was 1 degree above the allowed maximum. While that threshold was designed to prevent children from burning themselves at the sink, Kiffmeyer said it's excessive to place a formal correction order on the provider's public record.

"We're driving out the most experienced because of this hyper-regulation and disrespectful attitude," she said in an interview.

State and local leaders have already taken several steps to improve relations between providers and county inspectors, who monitor them, and regulators from the Department of Human Services, who issue suspension and shutdown orders. For example, inspectors can now issue simple "fix-it tickets" for lesser violations rather than correction orders. The term "negative action" has been scrubbed from the state website when describing violations that providers must correct.

"All we're trying to do is change the relationship to some degree," said Chuck Johnson, a deputy commissioner for human services, though he added that the state won't hesitate to shut down an unsafe child-care site.

Runaway toddler

The state has temporarily shut down 84 family child-care operations per year since 2014. That's a sharp drop from the 119 suspensions issued in 2012, when the Star Tribune published an investigative series on the rising number of child-care deaths, and the state cracked down on providers who failed to supervise children adequately or follow infant safe-sleep standards.

While shutdowns are necessary in the case of negligence, critics said the state has used them excessively. Amanda Restorff had her Otsego, Minn., child care shut down for five months in 2016 and was accused of maltreatment after a child who was outside the house ran three blocks away while she was inside preparing food.

Restorff's case went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which found this August that regulators had issued the maltreatment finding without sufficiently considering the supervision plan Restorff had in place, including a young helper who had been outside with the children, or the amount of time that the runaway toddler was actually out of sight. This month, state and county regulators withdrew all penalties against Restorff.

Most providers would have given up long before a high court ruling, said Julie Seydel, a public policy adviser for the Minnesota Association of Child Care Professionals, and a provider for 17 years. She said she has discouraged people from starting up family child cares because of the regulatory climate, adding that she has seen colleagues written up for violations as minor as prickly grass or rabbit droppings in their yards.

"Don't do it unless you want to jump into a boiling pot of water right now," Seydel said.

The declining number of family providers, in itself, may overstate the problem. The state's preschool population isn't growing, so a corresponding drop in child-care facilities would be expected. And Johnson said the overall number of child-care slots in Minnesota has actually remained level, because the drop in family providers has been offset by an equivalent increase in institutional child-care centers.

The expansion of child-care centers, though, does not entirely solve the problem because they tend to open in larger towns, leaving rural communities with unmet needs. Roughly a quarter of Minnesotans live in "desert" census tracts that have no child care, according to the Center for American Progress.

At the same time, parents and business leaders on the task force said Minnesota needs solutions beyond simply relaxing state oversight. In New York Mills, Lund Boats and civic leaders are trying to create a different model — a child-care "mall" that will entice multiple family providers with the prospect of low rent and overhead costs.

Community leaders in International Falls are similarly offering furnished, unused building space to prospective day-care providers. The region is about 200 slots short of adequately serving working families, said JoAnn Smith, a task force member who started a child care initiative to address that shortage.

She said the area needs incentives because many interested providers balk once they receive county paperwork showing the number of standards they must follow for a relatively low-wage job.

"Things are so strict and you're doing all this paperwork, and you're doing all of this other stuff," she said, "and it's almost too hard."