Critical safety and inspection records that families could use to identify incompetent child-care providers are often inaccessible to parents or withheld mistakenly by local regulators, a Star Tribune investigation has found.

That breakdown weakens accountability across Minnesota's system of 11,100 licensed, in-home day cares and leads some parents to unwittingly place their children in harm's way.

In one case, a Washington County provider was cited by local inspectors for three safety violations in 2005 and again in 2011 after an infant died in her care. Yet even today, the state website on child-care providers shows no licensing problems for her facility. Parents would have to call the Washington County licensing office to get those records -- and many parents don't know that's an option.

In another case, a child-care provider from Glyndon, Minn., was cited by county inspectors in June 2010 and January 2011 because three children had suffered injuries while in her care. None of that information was online in March 2011, when a new infant in her care suffered a skull fracture. State regulators then deemed her facility so dangerous that they shut it down.

The provider was "simply overmatched when trying to provide care to so many young children and to keep those children safe," an administrative law judge later wrote.

These lapses came to light as the newspaper examined licensing violations and death certificates in connection with a rise in Minnesota child-care deaths over the past five years. The number of deaths has nearly doubled in that period, reaching nearly one per month, with virtually all the deaths occurring at small, in-home child-care settings.

Since 2002, the state has issued more than 700 licensing actions against in-home child-care providers still operating today. Yet only about one-third of those violations are posted on the state's website, apparently because the others occurred before the online tool was created.

In a sprawling day-care system that ranges from devoted, highly skilled providers to those with troubled safety records, access to public licensing documents can be crucial for parents trying to distinguish safe settings from dangerous ones.

Inspection reports, for example, can give parents an expert's assessment on everything from whether providers change diapers correctly to whether they watch children carefully, said Ann Dryden Witte, a Wellesley College professor who has studied child-care safety and public records.

"It's detailed information," she said. "It's what you want to know if you're a parent."

Some 24 other states provide those records on public websites. The lack of comparable online records in Minnesota is a serious failing, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national watchdog organization on child-care safety and quality.

"We think it's a huge common sense thing," said Grace Reef, the organization's policy chief. "It's really important for parents that they know as much as they can before they decide to leave their child with someone."

State officials say they recognize the need for more information online about in-home providers and plan to start making more records available in the next year.

County vs. state

The information gaps stem in part from Minnesota's two-tier system for regulating child-care providers.

Large child-care centers -- about 1,500 facilities, most of them with many employees -- are licensed and inspected by state regulators from the Department of Human Services (DHS). In 2010, the state created a website where it posts "negative actions," such as fines or suspensions for severe violations, and "correction orders," which stem from regular inspections and allow centers to limit penalties if they fix deficiencies in their care.

By contrast, small licensed family day cares -- 11,100 providers who generally operate in their own homes -- are inspected by county authorities. Major penalties against these homes, such as suspensions, are posted on the state website. But correction orders issued by county inspectors are not. They are kept in county offices and posted in the providers' homes for two years after the violations.

Reef says Minnesota could prevent injuries and deaths if it posted inspection reports and resulting correction orders online because they reveal problems that often lead to bigger, more dangerous violations in troubled facilities.

"In some of the child death situations, which are always tragedies," she said, "you look back and you see that, 'Wow, in previous inspections they had been cited for some serious things.'"

Even when parents know to call their local county licensing offices, they might be denied access to certain inspection details or facts about deaths and serious injuries.

That's because Minnesota's 87 counties have different standards for releasing licensing records to parents. Some counties use a restrictive interpretation of Minnesota's public-records law and guard information so closely that even basic facts, such as when a child-care facility was last inspected, will not be disclosed to the public.

Some county regulators admit that these policies can leave parents with incomplete information. They urge parents to double-check with providers about licensing problems they've had.

"One thing we always talk to parents about ... is that they really need to use their best judgment and go a lot on instinct when they are talking with providers," said Shona Buesgens, a supervising social worker with the Scott County licensing office.

Assistant Anoka County Attorney Nancy J. Norman, who fields data practices requests, acknowledged that counties have different interpretations of state public-records law as it applies to in-home providers. She said she understands why parents and the public would want access to licensing records, but she also said state law is not clear.

"It's so muddy," she said. "There's a lot left to interpretation. Some other counties are distraught about how much we're releasing. They believe the statute doesn't encompass it."

Powerful tool

Posting inspection and complaint reports online is standard practice for states that rank well nationally for in-home child-care quality, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America. Oklahoma and Washington, ranked one and two, post such data; Kansas moved up to No. 3 this year after an overhaul to its system that included an online system for families to see licensing history and compliance reports.

Giving parents access to licensing records can improve the quality and safety of a state's child-care system, said Witte, the Wellesley researcher. She conducted the only known U.S. study examining the impact of online child-care inspection reports.

Witte compared licensing activity and child-care quality in Broward County, Fla., in 2000, when inspection reports weren't online, and in 2001, when they were posted.

She found that inspections and sanctions increased the year that reports were publicized online and that the measurable quality of child care improved as well. It's likely that public reporting motivated inspectors to look harder for problems because they knew their reports would be seen and pushed providers to improve their care, she said.

A father didn't know

Jerry Kerber, inspector general at DHS, agreed that there are shortcomings on the state's website and acknowledged that if parents don't pay attention to its disclaimers, the licensing information collected on in-home providers could be misleading.

Kerber blamed a lack of consistency in the state's 87 counties for certain serious violations not coming to the attention of DHS regulators.

Kerber said that in the next year, his agency will begin posting some county correction orders for in-home day cares.

"When you find the most serious ones that were not easily available to parents, it supports the goal we have to post this type of information," he said.

Luke Davis didn't know about the correction orders that had been issued to a day-care home in Washington County before his 3-month-old son died last year. He described his provider as caring and competent, and he isn't sure the information would have led to a different home. The family still doesn't know exactly why its son died.

Even so, Davis wishes some authority, either police or licensing officials, had shared information about the four correction orders issued following his son's death.

"It's information that should have been provided," he said. "It's information a parent searching for answers should have."

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. • 612-673-7744 • 612-673-4777