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Unregulated providers fill in to meet Iowa's child care needs. Should we be worried?

Feb 22, 2019 at 9:00 am
    Lily Heisterkamp, 4, sits on a bench and looks at a magazine as she waits for lunch with her Kindergarten Crossing Classroom, ages 4-6, at Carroll Area Child Care Center and Preschool in Carroll on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

    When looking for someone they can trust to take care of their children, thousands of Iowa parents are logging onto Facebook.

    One Facebook group, created by Barb Irwin for Cedar Rapids area child care providers and parents, has netted more than 700 members since she created it in March 2015.

    “Social media is where it’s at,” Irwin said. “That’s dating, too. Nobody goes and does anything anymore. To find a date, where do you go? It’s kind of the same on child care.”

    Irwin’s public Facebook group offers some of the same conveniences as many dating apps. Parents regularly post information about their children — age, gender, what days and times they need supervision — and responses quickly pop up from people offering services. Day cares, similarly, post openings looking for children.

    But the social media market for child care is largely unregulated. In Irwin’s group, she is the only fail-safe. She does her best to moderate the group but said she expects nearly half the providers in the group are operating “under the radar” of any state supervision or inspection.

    You could point out during an interview, here’s my book of certifications. They just thumb through it and don’t really look. They don’t care because (they think) you’re just a baby sitter.

    - Barb Irwin

    Facebook Group Creator


    Irwin occasionally will field complaints from parents and block people claiming to be child care professionals. She recalled one message from a mom who said she connected with a provider in Irwin’s group. But when she arrived at the house with her child, she found four people smoking on a couch inside.

    Sometimes her message inbox will ping with warnings.

    “I just had a lady last night post trying to baby-sit,” Irwin said. “And someone who was friends with them (sent me a message and) said, ‘I don’t think I would trust her, not even with my dog.’ I removed her from my site. There’s a judgment call.”

    The number of children aged five and under in Iowa consistently is larger than the number of spots in licensed child care centers, leaving unlicensed and unregulated providers to fill in the gap. The lack of oversight over this quasi-underground system troubles some Iowa lawmakers, state agencies and professional care providers.


    A dearth of child care options is a problem nationwide, according to an analysis from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, or CAP. The report identified “child care deserts,” or census tracts where at least three times as many children live as there are licensed child care spots. About half the people in the United States live in a child care desert, according to the annual study.

    In Iowa, nearly one-quarter of the population live in a child care desert.

    “That’s good, relative to the rest of the states in the study,” said Rasheed Malik, one of the report’s authors. “Of course, that also means you have a one-in-four chance of living a child care desert.”


    The availability of child care in Iowa, in fact, is better than any other state except Maine, according to the study. In Iowa, Polk and Johnson counties were among the better-off areas for availability of a licensed provider, with around 100 percent capacity for the children under age five, according to Iowa Department of Human Services data.

    Keokuk County in east-central Iowa, with a population of about 10,000, had the fewest licensed providers. A total of 52 spots exist for more than 600 children under the age of 5, according to U.S. Census data.

    But child care supply data doesn’t tell the whole story, said Katie Hamm, CAP’s vice president of early childhood policy.

    “A lot of parents work non-traditional hours and are looking for care that’s not 9-to-5, Monday through Friday,” she said. “I think it’s important to think about proximity to child care as one component of access — the other piece is Iowa has a

    higher-than-average maternal labor force participation rate. There is likely more demand in Iowa for child care than you might see in other states.”

    In areas where licensed child care is lacking, women are less likely to work, the study found, and rural communities are hit hardest by the care shortages.

    “This market failure is especially problematic,” the 2018 study reads, “because it affects children in their formative years when their experiences are shaping the cognitive, language and socio-emotional skills that influence future learning.”


    The cost of operating an in-home child care business can be prohibitive, said Tracy Ehlert, who is registered with the state to care for up to 12 children in her Cedar Rapids home. In November, she was elected as a state representative for House District 70.

    “For Linn County, we have a lot of longtime in-home providers going out of business,” Ehlert said. “My whole network of people I connect with in the in-home world is almost gone. They left for higher pay. And doing in-home, you don’t get benefits.”

    As she’s seen established in-home providers close down, Ehlert said it seems more providers are entering the market — but not becoming registered with the state.

    Iowa began seeing a drop in registered providers after new federal guidelines for child care operators went into effect in 2016.

    The heightened requirements came with the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which provides financial assistance for child care services.

    Requirements include comprehensive background checks and fingerprinting for child-care workers, expanded health and safety standards, and pre-licensure inspection at providers’ homes.

    “They were great guidelines to put in place, but when Iowans were used to much more lax requirements, it became difficult for them,” said Chelsea Van Daele, recruitment and retention specialist at Child Care Resource and Referral, a child care support agency in Iowa.

    Child Care Resource and Referral pushes for unregistered providers to become licensed, mostly to ensure operators are educated on best practices for early childhood development. Licensed centers are required to meet early development standards and, without these, children could just spend their time watching TV or not playing with others, Van Daele said.

    The agency also is concerned with ensuring adequate safety measures when caring for children.


    “They don’t understand why some of the requirements are necessary,” said Van Daele, referring to rules such as having a fire extinguisher or smoke detectors on every level of a home. “It’s there for a reason because something has happened in the past.”

    Once licensed, child care providers become eligible for state and federal funding to aid in costs. Even a grandmother watching her grandchildren could receive some financial assistance, Van Daele noted.

    Per-unit rates in 2019 for those providing basic care for preschool-aged children range from $7.19 for non-registered family homes to $13.53 for centers.

    The state sets minimum requirements for unregistered providers as well. But it has no comprehensive record of unregistered child care homes, so enforcement is nearly impossible.

    Iowa Department of Human Services spokesman Matt Highland said Iowa Code mandates child care providers caring for more than five children at one time must register as a Child Development Home. Not doing so is a simple misdemeanor, he said in an email.

    Still, there are few resources to identify providers operating outside the law.

    “Often we know who the non-regulated providers are just through word-of-mouth, or we see it on social media, or because, unfortunately, there are

    a lot of complaints against them,” state Rep. Ehlert said. “We don’t have

    the staff at DHS to follow up on non-regulated homes.”

    DHS is required only to do spot checks at unregistered providers’ homes that accept public child care assistance, which providers can choose not to accept. In January, Highland said DHS was paying approximately 225 caregivers per month in Iowa.

    But for the rest, “anything can happen,” said Van Daele at Child Care Resource and Referral.

    “When we do hear of things going wrong, it’s mostly in unregistered centers,” she said.


    On the Facebook page for her in-home care center, Amber Post uploaded photos one January day of toddlers using black construction paper, white finger paint and glitter to make artwork of “a snowy night.”

    Other photos showed the children at her Little Peanuts Childcare in Marion playing with toy food and hugging Post’s cat in a brightly lit living room.

    “Lunch will be shredded BBQ chicken sandwiches, baked beans and pears,” Post wrote on Facebook, where she communicates directly with the families in her day care. “This afternoon we will read, do a fine motor activity and finish some art that we started last week.”

    Post found some of the children in her day care through a Facebook group — this one with more than 1,800 members, even larger than Irwin’s — for in-home day care listings in the Cedar Rapids area.

    She also uses an app on her phone to tell parents in-the-moment details about their children every day, including when they ate and how much, when they had their diaper changed and when they had a bottle.

    “I am in communication with parents all day long,” Post said. “All my parents have Facebook, so I have chat groups with parents throughout the day, or they can message me with questions, at night or on the weekend.”

    No one yet has expressed concern that her in-home day care is not registered with the state, Post said.


    “Not all parents, but what a percentage are mainly concerned with is price, location — and then quality,” she said. “The No. 1 thing when they’re looking for care is what’s close to home or work. A lot of time they don’t look as much at quality as convenience.”

    She charges $150 per week for full-time care, a mid-tier rate for care in Linn County. Statewide, care for a toddler costs an average of $132 per week for a registered home and $178 at a licensed center.

    Because she cares for fewer than six children — Little Peanuts has five, all three years old or younger — Post is not legally required to make her in-home day care known to the state. Her early childhood education degree from Kirkwood Community College included CPR, First Aid and mandatory reporter training.

    Registering with DHS would invite regulations over matters such as how many square feet her home would need per child and how many bathrooms, she said.

    “There are centers that are state-qualified that are not quality,” she added. “Just because you’re licensed, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’re a really good provider.”


    Post — with her educational background in early childhood — could be a rarity among non-regulated in-home programs, said Ehlert, the caregiver who is now a state representative.

    “So often, in in-home child care, people going into the profession think, ‘I’m a parent, that’s enough education for me,’ ” she said. “Or, ‘I really love kids, and that’s enough.’ They don’t always understand child development, and that’s huge, especially when we’re talking about birth to five.”

    And it’s common, she said, for parents not to understand the difference. Pricing isn’t always an indicator of quality — Ehlert said she sees non-regulated programs that “are really cheap and just want kids” and caregivers who charge as much as a credentialed provider, despite having no expertise.

    “I’ve had parents come to me and say, ‘We thought we had a good program before,’” she said. “It can take going through different providers to really understand that.”

    State services such as Child Care Resource and Referral can be a resource for families, but only if they know to check out a provider there, Ehlert said.

    Ehlert, a Democrat, said she hopes to introduce legislation this session mandating all child care providers — regardless of how many children they care for — be licensed through the state.

    “We follow up on our teachers, on our hair stylists,” she said. “But we don’t require those caring for our youngest population to be mandatory licensed.”

    Similar legislation has been proposed in Iowa but has never been adopted.

    Skyler Wheeler, a Republican representing a rural House district in Sioux County, bristled at the idea of additional regulations — noting more federal regulations already have coincided with a drop in child care spots available.

    Instead, he pointed to possible tax incentives for people to open child care operations.

    “It’s figuring out how can we incentivize opening day cares and child care and getting more access to people and allowing them to go back to work,” Wheeler said.

    “… Adding regulation is not going to help this at all, especially requiring licensing on this matter. That’s the opposite of everything else I’ve heard in my community.”

    With a shortage of child care providers, non-regulated in-home providers fill a critical service gap for many Iowa families. But with weak state oversight, parents desperate for care often find they are the only defense against inadequate and harmful homes.

    Child care providers — including Ehlert, Post and Irwin, who ran a non-regulated, in-home center before retiring — recommended parents looking for care visit homes, ask specific questions and maintain a high standard.

    “Your kids, a lot of time, spend more time with them than you,” Post said, adding that a child care provider should provide parents with a detailed contract. “It’s an important job.”

    But providers often meet parents who don’t inquire about quality standards such as a caregiver’s training, Irwin said.

    “You could point out during an interview, here’s my book of certifications. They just thumb through it and don’t really look,” Irwin said. “They don’t care because (they think) you’re just a baby sitter.”

    Of the parents who find child care on social media, including in her Facebook group, Irwin said she hopes they are checking references before leaving their child with a provider.

    But does she believe most are?

    “I can’t say most,” she said. “Some.”

    A note on these reports:

    This Iowa Ideas look at child care in rural Iowa was reported and written by Gazette staff and by writers from three other Iowa newspapers.

    l Comments: (319) 398-8330,; (319) 368-8536,


    Incorrect figure — Reimbursement rates for those providing basic care for preschool-aged children range from $7.19 for non-registered family homes to $13.53 for centers per unit, which typically is a half-day of care. The pay increment was reported incorrectly in a Feb. 24 Iowa Ideas magazine article on child care.

    The Gazette welcomes comments about the accuracy, fairness and completeness of news articles, headlines and captions in the newspaper. When the content is found to be wrong or misleading, a correction or clarification will be published in this space. Please call (319) 398-8313 or 1-800-397-8212.

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