Child care providers face license pressure from state

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Parents do not see a problem with local daycare

Child care providers who have been caring for Barry County children for decades without being state-licensed, and without complaints from parents, are facing pressure from the state to do so, or they may face sanctions, or even be shut down.

Since about 2011, child care regulators from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have been policing local child care centers due to suspicions they are keeping more children than is legally allowed, or not following what many consider to be unreasonable and petty regulations.

In 2011, some centers were found to be watching between 15 to 30 children at a time. In the state of Missouri, unlicensed providers are allowed to care for no more than four children at a time who are not related to them. Local providers, who say they have had enough, have been stopping regulators at the door and saying, "No more." Others choose to remain silent due to fear of repercussions.

When regulators have not been able to go inside, they have been seen peeking in providers' windows to count children. The regulators are the only ones who have a problem with licensing and regulations, as local parents, providers, and even prosecutors, do not.

Beginning in or around 2011, regulators sent former Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox letters asking him to prosecute providers, but he would not act on the grounds he did not believe providers had been negligent or abusive, and the choice was a parent's decision.

The issue came to a head with Lit'l Bits Daycare Owner Kellie Dickson, who refused to back down. Dickson has operated a center in Cassville for over three decades, but the state is demanding she obtain a license.

"The core issue is, do local child care providers have to become licensed, and thereby be forced to raise fees for parents, in an area that already has lower incomes and fewer employment opportunities?" said John Lewright, Dickson's attorney. "Or, can providers continue to operate independently and unlicensed as they always have, not have restrictions placed upon them and maintain control locally, without government interference?

"These providers are not trying to flaunt the law, just provide safe and affordable child care. The government regulations are set up for cities the size of St. Louis, where no one knows their neighbors. This case started out because someone in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch started talking about it. I looked at some of their inspections, and there was indescribable filth, and they were licensed day care centers. "

Lewright said current Barry County Prosecutor Amy Boxx intervened to ask for judicial oversight, but the Attorney General said no.

"They want an injunction, and I'm saying we may have to have a license, but their regulations are unreasonable, so just do what's fair and just," Lewright said. "The real remedy is to change the statute, which is extremely complicated and written, in my opinion, so the issue can be locally-controlled. But, the AG's office seems to think otherwise, and I think our prosecutor wants it local."

Boxx said she could not comment on Dickson's pending case, but said her office would follow up on referrals.

"State law requires daycares under certain circumstances to be licensed," she said. "If a referral is made to my office, we will investigate the same and file charges if warranted."

Jessica Hodge, whom Dickson cared for as a child and now entrusts the care of her own children to Dickson, believed state requirements would place hardships on parents and providers.

"I'd rather her not be licensed," Hodge said. "Due to the restrictions, they would make it to where she can't make home-cooked meals, and it would almost triple our rates, because she would have to come up to standards. It would be outrageous."

Hodge said she does not have any concerns about Dickson being licensed, and she thinks parents should be able to decide where they take their child, not the state.

"She provides exceptional care," Hodge said. "I went to Kellie when I was a child. We [parents] support her 100 percent."

The issue went all the way to trial in December, something Lewright said has never happened in the state of Missouri.

"They are claiming she is not licensed and can't operate with the numbers," Lewright said. "They objected to the kids being all together, even though she has separate spots for them. They said she can't do that and you have to have a certain amount of space in between them. I just think they need to provide a safe environment for kids."

If Dickson and others were forced to become licensed, Hodge and Lewright both agreed that local parents would not be able to afford care. Many Springfield providers charge $140 per week, Lewright said, compared to the approximately $60 per week Dickson charges.

"That's all parents can afford [here]," he said. "She doesn't do it for money but because she loves the children. The issue is important to everyone in a rural county, because it is about who is given the power to control what should be a personal and local decision.

"We're a close community. If something was wrong, the [child care center] is going to be shut down. I can understand the need for [regulations] in a big city, but I do not believe it's appropriate for our area, especially with our income."

Lewright said other centers are being looked at, but believes Dickson was targeted.

"There's been numerous others they've talked to, but I'm not at liberty to say," he said. "Clearly, they've singled Kellie out. Kellie's been doing child care for years. She raised my kids. She has 16 second-generation kids she takes care of and one third-generation child. If she was running a church, they couldn't touch her.

"Clearly, I think the statute needs to be rewritten, and the judge is likely to render a decision that's fair and equitable, and one that rural Missouri can live with. He has studied this case thoroughly. The core issue is [or should be], are the children safe, and is she providing a good daycare."

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said they do not comment on pending litigation.

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