As written, the legislation, HB2689, would allow unlicensed child care providers to operate in counties with a population of less than 50,000 in hopes of increasing accessibility to child care in rural communities.
In October, a report co-sponsored by advocacy group Tennesseans for Quality Early Education found that Northeast Tennessee counties lose $43 million annually as a result of child care issues. The report also found that 98% of parents surveyed in the Tri-Cities said inadequate childcare hurt their work productivity or opportunities.
Still, care providers in Johnson and Unicoi counties — which would be affected by the new regulations — expressed concerns about allowing unlicensed facilities to provide care for so many children. Current state law says a provider can only care for up to four unrelated children without a license.
“If you’re not licensed or monitored, you might let some things slip that will come back to hurt the child,” said Sandy Gouge, who owns the Unicoi Child Care Center. “Anything could happen to that child.”
As written, the bill would require care providers to undergo 10 hours of training and facilities would still be subject to Tennessee Department of Human Services regulations. There would not be any limit on how long those facilities could provide care, and parents would have to sign a waiver acknowledging the provider is unlicensed.
Gouge said the 10-hour requirement is “almost absurd” and “nothing,” adding that the bill could be “a disaster” if unlicensed providers aren’t held to the same standard as licensed facilities.
“I just think it’s mind-boggling,” she said of allowing unlicensed facilities to care for so many children.
Gouge also said she understood why this type of legislation is being introduced — calling the need for child care in the state “great” — but that she’s concerned about the unintended consequences, and plans to meet with Hill to discuss her concerns in the coming weeks.
In a press release Wednesday morning, Hill said the legislation stemmed from concerns he heard from constituents in Johnson County about a lack of safe and reliable child care.
Jacqueline Mann, who owns a daycare center in Mountain City, said she emailed Hill after she heard about the bill, hoping to find out how legislators would ensure facilities that may already be providing unlicensed child care outside of current regulation would comply with new ones.
“The safety of children is my biggest concern,” Mann said. “It sounds like, though, they want to monitor what’s already going on anyway, and it’s a concern here in our county.”
In her email to Hill, Mann said she has ”many” concerns but said the bill “sounds like it may help,” though she “would like to see the current laws concerning child care enforced.”
Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Hill, who acknowledged concerns regarding the legislation, said the bill is “a medium step to try to help our families and get access for our children.”
“Absolutely (safety) is a concern — the safety of the child is paramount,” Hill said. “That’s the first we want to address, but the question is, can we find a medium step where we still require training and accountability (for) the smaller facilities that want to provide to provide the child care in a rural setting — can we find another scenario besides licensure that we can keep the children safe but allow parents that opportunity?”
Hill noted that any unlicensed facility would still be inspected and that there “will still be accountability to the Department of Human Services.” Hill also said the final training requirement would be determined as the bill moves through the legislative process.
“If you’re operating one of these facilities you need to do it the right way and obey the law,” Hill said. “Right now, the state is a barrier and that’s why the balance between safety and access is so important.”
Steve Petty, a youth policy advocate with the Tennessee Coalition for Children and Youth, called the accessibility of child care “a huge issue” across the state, and said “there will be a lot of discussion about child care during this legislative session.”
A spokesman for the Department of Human Services declined to comment. Representatives of the advocacy organization Tennesseans for Quality Early Education could not immediately be reached for comment.