Obama Administration Sets Strict New Safety Rules To Prevent Child Care Deaths

(Credit: Morrow County Child Care)

The Obama Administration took a big step on Thursday to ensure that kids in child care are safe. Speaking before a D.C.-area day care, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced strict new regulatory rules — the first in 15 years — for child care facilities across the nation.

The newly announced regulations will apply to any child care center or family home that receives federal funding through HHS’s Child Care and Development Fund. Among the expanded rules are universal background checks and fingerprinting for child care workers, mandatory CPR and first aid training for such employees, and “safe sleeping practices” to prevent accidental suffocation deaths. “We frankly can’t wait any longer,” said Sebelius of the regulations.

Administration officials and child safety advocates hope that the requirements will put a dent in the depressingly high number of young children who die as a consequence of negligent care and unsafe practices. For instance, three-month-old baby boy Dane died after a child care worker “put him face-down on a blanket and left him for an hour” — just one example of a child death that the new rules’ safe sleeping component might have prevented.

Federal rules governing these care facilities are currently limited to preventing infectious epidemics and making sure that buildings meet fire safety codes. For the most part, states are left to their own discretion in coming up with more expansive regulations — making the new federal standards particularly significant.

However, the new requirements only apply to the 513,000 child care centers that receive federal money. That means that thousands of other facilities that care for children will still answer to watered-down rules that are left up to the states — and considering how lax some states’ standards are, that’s a big problem.

In a 2010 report, the child safety organization Child Care Aware of America found that nine states scored zero points on their child care safety score sheet. Some of these states, including Iowa, Idaho, and Virginia, require a child care facility to serve seven or more children before requiring state licensing or inspections; eight other states, including Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and South Carolina, do not require a facility inspection or even an on-site visit before issuing a child care license; and Louisiana and New Jersey don’t require any child care facilities to receive a state license at all. “Unfortunately, in too many cases, it takes well-publicized deaths in child-care settings to prompt state action to strengthen their licensing standards to better address children’s safety,” an HHS official told the Washington Post.

While child care advocates are encouraged by the new federal rules, many still acknowledge that real reform requires congressional action, as well as more funding for the federal Child Care and Development Fund. The Fund was last reauthorized by Congress in 1996.