Minnesota legislators are working to restrict public access to enforcement reports of family day care providers accused of violating standards, a move they hope will slow the dramatic exit of child care operators from the state.
Day care operators are pressuring legislators to make the changes, saying their reputations can be tarnished by violation reports that remain available online, even after proving to be erroneous or dismissed on appeal.
"If we're found to be innocent, it shouldn't permanently haunt us," said Jennifer Parrish, a day care provider in Rochester.
Measures advancing through the House and Senate would carve a special exemption in Minnesota's public records law for the nearly 9,000 family child cares, by keeping licensing actions nonpublic until the appeal process is complete.
That process can take months. For those actions that are overturned, the public will never have access to records about the allegations.
The effort is causing a clash between day care operators trying to protect their businesses and regulators who want parents to have the most complete information about child care providers at their fingertips. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the measure, "which would make public data on child care providers less accessible to the people of Minnesota," spokesman Sam Fettig said.
State officials have been wrestling with how best to regulate child care centers for years, particularly smaller providers who operate out of their homes. In 2012, the Star Tribune used the records to explain a sharp rise in the number of deaths at home-based day cares. The resulting stories prompted legislative action to strengthen oversight. Those deaths have since plummeted.
The measures to restrict public access to child care data are opposed by the Department of Human Services, which along with counties enforce standards at family day cares.
"By not making that public, the public and the parents, both of children in care and prospective parents, lose a great deal of information," said Reggie Wagner, a deputy inspector general for DHS. She said the existing process strikes the appropriate balance, while "it forces us to be accountable for our investigations."
If the new measures become law, they would add to the more than 660 exemptions in Minnesota's public records law.
The issue underscores the larger problem the state faces in ensuring day care centers are safe, but also affordable and convenient. Dayton and many legislators are straining to figure out a politically feasible way to improve access and lower the cost of child care. A new report by the state found that the average cost for infants at a Minnesota family child care provider is $8,000 per year.
From 2005 through 2014, more than 3,000 day care providers left the business, according to DHS. More day care closures will drive up costs and limit child care options, particularly for low-income families struggling to balance work and raising children.
The proposed changes would not apply to larger child care centers, which would still have their records publicly available once the state issues a negative action order, correction order or other enforcement action.
Supporters of the measure say it's only fair to make an exception for family child care operators, who are especially vulnerable to unfounded allegations. A bipartisan Legislative task force on access to affordable child care concluded in January that correction orders for minor violations can serve as a "scarlet letter" for providers.
House bill sponsor Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, said day care providers will still post any negative action orders in their day cares for parents and prospective parents to see.
"It is extremely important that we keep children safe and parents have access to all information," Lucero said Thursday.
Hollee Saville, a day care provider in St. Michael and communications director for the Minnesota Association of Child Care Professionals, pointed out that a "negative action order" remains on DHS' licensing lookup site for her home. Just above it is a "final decision" document with a single word, "reversed," which in her view doesn't compensate for the ugly details in the reversed order.
In a committee hearing, the perils of the current situation brought Saville to tears. Anyone looking up her record would find the "initial letter from the county that says I abused children," she said. "I would never do anything like that."
Wagner acknowledged that state human services officials should improve the way the agency writes and presents licensing enforcement records to the public. Nevertheless, she said, the public needs to see that the department and counties respond to allegations and that they don't issue an order before those allegations have been investigated.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said she is looking for a compromise that preserves access to the records, but presents the information in a way that offers more context.
"Obviously the last thing those providers would want is for any child to be put in danger by not making something public," Scott said.
James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4116