The Dubious Case for Regulating Day Care

Sifting through some misleading claims in The Washington Post


The Washington Post profiled a mother this week who wants Virginia to impose licensing restrictions on home-based day cares. Virginia is one of eight states that does not regulate providers who take care of six or fewer unrelated kids in their own home.

Spurred to activism by the death of her child, under circumstances that are still under investigation, the mother wants the state to require safety training, background checks, and home inspections for all home-based providers.

Considering the fact that Post writer Brigid Schulte clearly sympathizes with the idea that regulation would prevent such deaths, the article does a pretty good job providing grist for those who are more ideologically inclined towards less government.

For instance, the article portrays regulated day-care facilities as expensive and inconvenient relative to unregulated home-based providers. Many thousands of kids in Virginia are in unregulated day care, so it's not difficult to see that requiring licensure would impose massive costs on families.

That said, we're meant to wonder if we, as a society, should just find a way to shoulder the additional burden if it means safer care. But a little digging into the data shows it's not at all clear that licensing yields any safety benefits.

From the article:

Hundreds of cases of child abuse and neglect at unregulated day cares were referred by Child Protective Services to local investigators and prosecutors for further scrutiny in fiscal 2012, state records show.

Those state records are here. There were in fact 54 and not hundreds of investigations. The only way to get to hundreds is to count the 200-plus investigations of babysitters. Maybe Schulte thinks babysitters need more regulation too, but the article is about home-based day cares. It's rather disingenuous to conflate statistics on the two without at least mentioning that's what she's doing.

Moreover, of those 54 cases, only 13 turned out to be founded. Instead of implying that there are hundreds of potentially abusive unregulated providers in Virginia, Schulte should have just said investigators found 13 last year.

By contrast, there were 292 investigations that turned up 51 cases of abuse or neglect at regulated day cares. Of course, unregulated providers may be more abusive on average (if they take care of fewer children). But regulated providers are the source of more investigations and more cases of abuse.

Back to the Post

Day-care deaths in Virginia are rare. But three of the four children who died from suspected abuse or neglect while in day care in fiscal 2011 were in unregulated settings, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Those "unregulated settings" were in fact babysitters, as opposed to home-based day cares (see page 10). More importantly, three—not four—children died from abuse or neglect. The report says four caretakers were implicated in child deaths, but two babysitters were involved in the same death (page 17).

Still, that's only one year of data, so I requested more from the Department of Social Services. Seven children died from neglect or abuse in licensed day cares from 2000 to 2011. Twenty-five died in unlicensed care—but, in addition to home-based caregivers, that number includes babysitters and providers who are regulated but not licensed. (Virginia allows day cares affiliated with a religious organization to operate without a license, but they must abide by certain rules like minimum staff-to-child ratios.) A breakdown was not available.

Again though, since there is no data on the total number of children (or hours spent) in regulated versus unregulated care, it is impossible to tell which is more dangerous on average. What available numbers do show, though, is that children are vastly more likely to die from neglect or abuse at the hands of parents and family members than at either regulated or unregulated day cares. In fiscal 2011, for instance, parents, relatives, and paramours were implicated in 34 of 40 child deaths where a caregiver was at fault.

One can certainly understand and respect the motives that lead the mother in the story to push for licensing. But more regulation may be a bad thing for child safety, on balance. Licensing would force unregulated providers to either increase their prices or exit the market. Thousands of parents would then keep their kids at home or turn to relatives, which is an order of magnitude more dangerous for children.

As state senator Steve Martin (R-Chesterfield) tells the Post, parents don't need a license to have kids. Should they?