2019-01-09 / News

Newspaper: State oversight lacking at Texas day cares

By ANDREA BALL and TONY PLOHETSKI
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Each day, parents send more than 1 million children to Texas day care facilities, assuming they will be safe and secure until it is time to come home.

But more often than publicly posted state numbers indicate, children are victims of molestation, physical abuse or neglect at child care centers, including some with long histories of trouble.

A yearlong Austin American- Statesman investigation for the first time reveals the dangerous conditions that exist inside many Texas day cares, leaving hundreds of children with serious injuries and nearly 90 dead as a result of abuse or neglect since 2007.

The newspaper found the state of Texas has reduced its surveillance of the deadliest day care facilities the underground, illegal centers that watch thousands of children. And until recently, the state failed to use its own data in ways that could help identify problems before they lead to dangerous conditions.

The Statesman analyzed nearly 40,000 inspection records in which facilities had received state sanctions and obtained data on injuries and violations that had never previously been released by the state. The newspaper found: • More than 450 children almost one a week suffered sexual abuse inside a day care facility during the past 10 years. During that same time, child care facilities were cited more than 3,200 times for abuse and neglect of the children they were watching. • Nearly half of the children who died of abuse and neglect in day care facilities, 42 out of 88, were in illegal centers. But last year the state shut down its unit designed to track down these day care sites, saying in part that they weren't finding enough illegal centers to justify the effort. • Texas' regulations for day care staffing levels a key predictor of classroom safety and child brain development are among the worst in the country, and state officials have repeatedly refused to change them. In 2016, they pulled out of a study analyzing the impact of staffing levels on injury rates, effectively shutting it down before researchers could produce specific recommendations. • In some cases, the state's enforcement strategy has failed to correct dangerous caregiver behavior before injury or death. Usually, there are no financial penalties or extra training ordered when children are abused, neglected or wrongly punished. And the legislatively set fines that are levied are paltry, averaging $106, even as day care sites with scores of violations are allowed to continue operating.

Provided with a copy of the Statesman's findings, Gov. Greg Abbott promised to take action during the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature.

``Any allegation of child abuse or neglect must be taken seriously, and the governor will not tolerate it in Texas,'' Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said. ``He will work with the Legislature and key stakeholders to identify strategies and solutions to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future.''

Experts say the most problematic facilities flourish because of the harsh economics of child care in the state. In 2018, the average cost for infant care at licensed child care facility in Texas was $9,102 per year, according to Child Care Aware of America.

Yet Texas does less than any other state to provide badly needed child care subsidies to low-income parents, the Statesman found.

Consequently, many parents turn to unregulated day care facilities, which flourish by word of mouth, social media or websites such as Craigslist.

And while officials with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said it had become too difficult to find increasingly savvy illegal operators, a Statesman search uncovered numerous unregulated facilities in a single afternoon.

Overall, children are less likely to be hurt at a child care facility than they are at their homes, according to a 2005 study. Yet a lack of good data nationally makes it difficult to accurately measure day care safety. Even rudimentary efforts like the federal government's requirement that states report day care injuries are hobbled by unreliable recordkeeping.

Obtaining a complete picture of safety in Texas day cares also has been made more difficult by the state's refusal to release documents that could shed light on the deadliest cases.

The Statesman and Gatehouse Media, its parent company, sued the agency for records relating to child care deaths in August.

Meanwhile, the Statesman's investigation already has sparked change.

After the newspaper's questions about the illegal day care unit, HHSC officials changed course and asked the Legislature for money to re-establish the team designed to locate and shut down illegally operating day care centers.

``Day cares absolutely must deliver on their promises to parents,'' said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the commission. ``Caregivers have to be held accountable, and we do everything in our regulatory power to make it as safe as possible. We push for improvements inside day cares every single day.''

Several bills aimed at making day cares safer have already been filed in advance of the upcoming Texas Legislative session, including bills that would increase the number of caregivers and require child cares to carry liability insurance and install cameras.

State lawmakers have also expressed interest in crafting rules that would make more day care records public.

``My overriding is thought is that so little value seems to be put on the lives of these children and the value of the parents who want their babies safe as they're working and trying to raise these kids,'' said state Sen. Kirk Watson, DAustin.

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