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Doing Day Care Right

UNSAFE, unsanitary, and possibly even dangerous.

That's the disturbing assessment of conditions at some child-care centers, delivered by the Department of Health and Human Services. After inspecting 149 licensed day-care centers, foster homes, and Head Start programs in six states, federal auditors from the inspector general's office found the majority of the providers guilty of health and safety violations.

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Inspectors noted that many of the 6,600 children served by these facilities had been exposed to hazards ranging from raw sewage, roaches, and scalding water to household chemicals and littered playgrounds. They also found that some programs employed child-care workers with criminal backgrounds. The purpose of the inspections is to assess states' oversight of child-care programs and determine whether providers receiving federal money comply with existing standards.

Although the agency is not yet willing to draw conclusions about the quality of child care nationwide, these preliminary findings deserve serious attention by parents, lawmakers, and child-care providers. Eight million American children now spend time in various forms of child care. While many receive very good care in safe, licensed centers and family day-care homes, too many face dangers unseen by parents and casual visitors.

No national standards exist for child-care centers, and only 19 states require background checks before providers are hired. In addition, budget cuts in some states mean that fewer staff people are available to monitor child-care programs.

Beyond the immediate dangers these hazards pose to children, deficiencies in child care have larger implications. As welfare reform moves higher on the national agenda, with proposals to cut aid to recipients after two years, more children will need out-of-home care. Requiring single parents to work without assuring them access to safe, reliable child care could delay their hopes for self-sufficiency.

Improving the safety and cleanliness of day-care facilities remains an urgent need. At the same time, the embarrassingly low wages many providers receive must be increased. Americans must stop regarding child care as little more than baby-sitting - and pay workers accordingly - if the profession is to attract the qualified care givers children need.

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