Staff shortages at the Department of Children and Family Services are causing some child care centers to wait months before their licenses can be renewed – causing problems for child care businesses and possibly putting children’s safety at risk.

In the fourth quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, just 53 percent of child care providers were able to renew their licenses on time, according to a report the department submitted to the Illinois General Assembly in September 2013.

Also, just 60 percent of providers received their annual monitoring visits on time (though in some cases this may be due to providers not responding to requests to set up the visits).

Karen Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the department, says there are currently 43 vacant licensing representative positions, plus 10 temporarily vacant positions due to staff on leave. Overall, at the time the report was issued, DCFS had just 125 licensing representatives statewide, compared to 155 in fiscal year 2010.

“We are looking at recruiting more staff. We are looking at whether we can be more efficient with technology,” Hawkins says. “It is budget season, so we are looking at ways to increase resources.”

She notes that the agency has long struggled with retaining its staff, who often move up the ladder into other state jobs.

But Sessy Nyman, Vice President of Policy and Strategic Partnerships at the child-care advocacy group Illinois Action for Children, says that the shortage of licensing representatives could be putting children in danger.

“What happens when a licensing process starts to falter is that some child care providers are eagerly waiting for their representative. [But] some of them are taking this as a free-for-all,” Nyman says. “[They’ll say to themselves] ‘I’m licensed for eight, but I’m going to take care of 12.’ The challenge is that you only find out about it after the fact, when it is, sometimes, too late. And that is what you desperately want to avoid.”

Altogether, the state is responsible for overseeing more than 8,500 home day cares and more than 3,000 child care centers.  The report shows caseloads for licensing representatives have increased dramatically in recent years. In Northern Illinois and in Cook County, there are currently an average of 104 home day cares and child care centers per licensing representative, up from around 90 in fiscal year 2010. The National Association for Regulatory Administrators recommends significantly fewer – 50 child care centers or 100 homes per licensing worker.

Though child care programs are allowed to continue operating with expired licenses, they are not able to access food subsidies for low-income children from the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which requires that licenses be current.

A report by ChildCare Aware of America ranked Illinois 21st in the nation for its oversight of child care centers. The state’s weak point: Infrequent visits by licensing representatives and other inspectors.

Finances pose barrier to hiring

One child care provider contacted by Catalyst Chicago, who did not want her name to be used, said she has been trying to get approval to open an additional child care room since December 2012.

Expanding would allow her to let in families off her waiting list and also allow her current students to attend for more days. 

“The DCFS representative has not been able to come out,” she said. “I have to keep turning [parents] down. We only have 16 children right now; for me to open this classroom would be another 10 children.”

Hiring licensing representatives can be a challenge for the cash-strapped department, Nyman says, because hiring for child protection positions is seen as a more urgent priority.

But, she notes, the state recently contracted with a licensing researcher to use a tool that will allow licensing representatives to check for “red flags” instead of verifying that every program meets every licensing requirements.

Under the new system that could start as soon as this July, licensing representatives will get a “top 10 list” of things to check which will show that “if that provider does those things well, statistically speaking, they do everything else well” – allowing licensing representatives to spend more time on child care centers where young children could be in danger.

She believes the new system will allow licensing representatives to give child care programs more attention – a crucial step to improving quality.

 “If you are building a quality (early childhood) system, but you have a faulty licensing system, it becomes very hard to succeed,” Nyman says.

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