The unknown number of Routt County child-care providers operating without state licenses continues to concern local officials, particularly in the wake of a recent Denver tragedy that claimed the life of a 3-month-old.
It's a problem that has existed for years, said Renee Donahue of First Impressions of Routt County, but one that's nearly impossible to quantify.
"There always has been some amount of unlicensed care going on," Donahue said last week.
The issue of unlicensed providers took center stage last month when a house fire killed an Aurora infant who was in the care of a woman operating an unlicensed child-care business out of her home.
That tragedy sheds light on the need for parents to take an active role in monitoring the family or in-home providers that care for their children, local officials said.
"We want parents to be educated and aware of the situations their children are in," Donahue said.
Family child-care providers -- those who use their homes to care for other people's children -- are required to display a state license, said Sharyl Ritschel of the Steamboat Springs-based Child Care Network. Parents who don't see a license in the home where they take their children should ask the provider for evidence that he or she is licensed to provide care, Ritschel said.
Parents can call a toll-free state number -- (800) 799-5876 -- to check on the licensing status of a provider or to make a complaint.
Parents also should routinely visit their child-care providers during various time of the day.
"Drop in unexpectedly and make sure your child's being cared for in a safe place," Donahue said.
Often times, people operating without licenses simply don't know they're required to have one, Ritschel and Donahue said.
And instead of seeking punishment for unlicensed providers, the state and county are more interested in encouraging and helping those people to obtain a license, said Sharon Kelley, a licensing specialist with the Department of Human Services' Division of Child Care.
"I really don't think the people providing unlicensed care have bad intentions," Kelley said from her Steamboat office last week. "I guess my biggest fear is that you have someone with really good intentions who overextends themselves."
Accidents and tragedies can result when providers have too many children or insufficient training to handle the duties they assume, Kelley said.
Kelley is obligated to issue cease-and-desist letters to providers who she discovers aren't licensed. But shutting down those providers has an unfortunate consequence for the county -- further reducing the number of homes where parents can take their children. Routt County continues to be plagued by a shortage of qualified, licensed child-care providers, particularly those who provide care for infants and toddlers.
That shortage is one reason why Kelley encourages unlicensed providers to take the necessary steps to obtain legal status.
Obtaining a license to operate as a family child-care provider is an inexpensive and relatively short and simple process, Kelley said. First Impressions even provides grant monies that reimburse the minimal costs incurred by those who complete the licensing process, she said.
To obtain a license, applicants must undergo background checks, submit fingerprints, have their homes inspected by licensing agents, submit to physical exams to ensure good health and complete several courses, including CPR, first aid and medicine administration training.
When a license is granted to the provider, he or she can care for up to eight children at a time. Family providers are permitted to care for no more than two children younger than 2. Other age restrictions apply.
However, there are exemptions to the license requirement. For instance, a license isn't necessary if a provider is caring for children of the same family. Licenses are required when someone is providing care for two or more unrelated children.
Local officials recently have become aware of groups of parents who come together to hire nannies to care for their children, a practice that's illegal. Kelley worked with one such group of parents to help them secure the license needed to continue the operation legally.
Incidents like that underscore the need for more licensed providers in the county, particularly in outlying areas such as North Routt and South Routt, Donahue said.
But what most concerns local officials is that children are being cared for in safe environments by trained providers.
"If you're providing child care on a consistent basis, you need to be licensed," Kelley said. "It's really for the safety and cognitive development of the kids. We need to have people who know what they're doing taking care of our kids."
Although Kelley said the licensing process won't prevent all tragedies or mistakes from happening, it does provide a mechanism for monitoring child-care providers.
And it can protect unlicensed providers from drastic consequences.
"It's a huge liability to not be licensed," Kelley said. "If something happens to a kid in your care, and you're not licensed, you can be charged with neglect."
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