EDITORIAL: Legislators should reinstate oversight of day care centers

Most parents probably feel some trepidation when they first decide to place their children in day care centers. Some have their own experience or friends’ recommendations, but others must hope that state and perhaps local officials provide oversight to ensure that the fate of their children lies in the hands of people who are properly licensed, periodically inspected and adequately monitored.

There certainly appears to be plenty of choices; several day care centers can be found in most Rio Grande Valley neighborhoods. With good reason — it’s a lucrative business. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of sending a child to day care is more than $9,000 a year per child. Some centers appear well-funded. So they must be licensed and properly screen everyone who works there, right?

Don’t bet on it. The Austin American-Statesman recently released the results of a yearlong investigation of Texas day care facilities and found they operate with little oversight. The state office charged with providing that oversight was shut down last year. Officials said they didn’t find enough illegal centers to justify the effort and expense to keep it running.

But the newspaper reported that the state investigated thousands of reports of improprieties between 2007 and 2017, issuing more than 3,200 citations for abuse or neglect of children in the centers’ care. Hundreds of children were seriously injured and 88 died in such facilities during the decade evaluated, according to the state’s own records. Nearly half of the deaths, 42 of them, were in unlicensed centers.

More than 450 children, about one per week, suffered sexual abuse, and in many cases the abuse and injuries occurred after the state had sanctioned the centers for reported mistreatment.

This should concern Texans everywhere, and especially in South Texas, where much of the population is of school age or younger. And with few high-paying jobs, it’s safe to assume that all adults in a household likely are working or are looking for jobs, thus placing high reliance on day care centers.

The state needs to reinstate the office that monitors these facilities, and give it teeth; the newspaper’s report found that Texas day care regulations are among the worst in the state. Fines against the centers averaged a paltry $106 while the centers were allowed to operate despite the evidence of abuse.

Gov. Abbott’s office said it would address the report in the upcoming legislative session. The Valley’s delegation should hold the governor to his word, and support or author legislation that helps assure that parents can have confidence that their children are safe at their day care facility.

Parents also can take precautions. The state Department of Health and Human Services maintains a list of licensed day care centers at its website, dfps.state.tx.us. It also has a list of those centers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked. Reports of abuse or concerns can be made to the txabusehotline.org, or by calling (800) 252-5400 or (800) 4-A-CHILD.

The steps to better ensure that our children are safe in day care centers should be simple, but they require the proper oversight. Our children need it, and they deserve it. Let’s contact our lawmakers and make sure they get it.