Minnesota child care providers say state licensing needs an overhaul. Officials agree

Published 7:24 am Thursday, May 2, 2024

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By Kyra Miles

Phyllis Turner worked more than 30 years in Twin Cities child care before deciding to start her own business in 2020. With her long experience and deep community roots, she didn’t expect it would take long to get licensed and get the doors open.

It took two years.

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Bogged down in the bureaucracy of state licensing — reaching the right contacts, scheduling walkthroughs, making sure her paperwork was correct with the Department of Human Services — Turner said she felt at times like she’d been left to fend for herself.

“It was rough. A lot of tears, a lot of sadness. It was rough,” she recalled. “We need child care providers in the city. It should not take over a year to get a license.”

Family child care businesses are vital to Minnesota’s families and economy. Yet their numbers have collapsed over the past 20 years, with declines accelerating in the COVID-19 pandemic. Programs are closing at twice the rate new ones are opening as tuition and expense costs continue to rise, according to state data analyzed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Finding answers is vital to the state’s future, and state officials agree the current licensing system needs fixing. A revamped system is expected to roll out this summer. Still, change comes slowly — many of the current state standards around child care date back to the 1980s — and observers worry the need for child care will continue to outrun the solutions.

While her business is thriving today, Turner’s convinced the system needs to be remade. “I would like to see them more helping to guide the child care provider through,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re not on the same team. I want to see a team effort, teamwork.”

‘Moving target’

Lisa Thompson knows the numbers and hears the stories.

“Twenty years ago, there were 14,000 licensed family child care programs, and today it’s around 6,000,” said Thompson, the ombudsperson for family child care providers at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Thompson said she’s seen people get confused or discouraged by paperwork and their interactions with DHS to the point where they just drop their application. “People are leaving, because of the difficulties of staying licensed and maintaining compliance to the regulations,” she added.

“I have yet to see any conclusions and research that people don’t want to follow the rules,” Thompson said. “The problems come in when the license licensing rules and regulations are a moving target.”

Beyond the bureaucracy, people trying to start a child care business often face thousands of dollars in up-front costs.

Russicha Watkins has spent the last three years and over $12,000 trying to get a family child care license in north Minneapolis. She didn’t want to run the child care out of her own home so she began renting a property and purchasing furniture and supplies assuming the process would only take a few months.

Instead, she faced significant delays and problems with documents that she believes should have been easily resolved.

“You know, and I just said no, I just gotta keep coming out this money, but it’s gonna pay off in the end,” Watkins said. “So to end up not being able to even open and I had to give that place back. I wasted money. I wasted time.”

Watkins is still trying to get her license.

‘People closest to the pain’

In-home child care is often a cornerstone for families, especially in rural areas. While their enrollment capacity is smaller than commercial centers, they’re cheaper, support mixed age children, have more flexible hours and can be more culturally responsive. But if they’re not an option it makes child care harder to find.

“People closest to the pain are the people that have the best solutions to the problem,” Thompson said. “We need to continue to make sure that everyone who is doing this job has their voice heard in the solutions and that they’re supported to stay in the profession, rather than, ‘Here’s your license, go at it. See you on the other side.’”

State officials and politicians across party lines agree. In 2021, Minnesota backed and funded the Family Child Care Regulation Modernization Project, born of the bipartisan Family Child Care Task Force, to address some of the issues that have led people to leave the profession.

“Most of these child care standards have not been substantially updated or reviewed since the early 1980s,” said Alyssa Dotson, the deputy inspector general of licensing at DHS.

Other initiatives like the alternative child care program born from the task force have made changes to allow people to open family child care operations in commercial buildings and an experimental pod modelthat has found some success in rural areas of Minnesota.

“I think a shared goal that we have with providers is for them to really be able to spend less time doing the compliance and paperwork side of it and more time providing care to the children more time on the floor in the rooms,” Dotson said.

The new modernization plan streamlines licensing, builds in rewards for good inspections and creates a weighted risk system so small infractions wouldn’t cost a provider their entire business and families a child care option. The first changes are expected to roll out this summer.

Dotson said the state has heard the voices of people saying the current system isn’t working “and we want to be responsive to that. And so this project is allowing us to really engage with them.”

For Turner, change can’t come fast enough.

“Let’s work together at succeeding in early childhood,” she said, “because I’m telling you, it’s not going anywhere. Kids are born all day, every day.”