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Is your child's potential day care a valuable addition to their life, or a house of horrors you'll regret sending them to for the rest of your life? Don't wonder — know. Here's how to vet candidate day care centers.

Nearly four-fifths of US under-fives attend some sort of organized childcare setting, whether a day care, nursery, or preschool [1]. The Center for American Progress acknowledges that some mothers attend full-time education, but lists "because most parents work outside the home" as a primary reason for which young children go to childcare. I'd add a third — where I live, parents often send their kids to day care whether or not they work, because they consider it an important agent of early childhood socialization. Also a fourth — even if you don't work outside the home, you have plenty of stuff to do, some of which is easier without small children around. 

No matter why we send our kids to day cares, nurseries, or preschools, we expect all sorts of things from these institutions. We expect them to foster friendly relations between children, probably to feed our kids (at least semi-healthy meals) while they're there, and to offer some sort of academic or intellectual stimulation alongside play and a bit of physical exercise. Most of all, however, we expect organized childcare facilities to keep our kids safe

They don't always do that.

The kinds of things you really don't want happening to your child while they're attending a day care, nursery, or preschool might include:

  • Toddlers somehow managing to exit the facility by themselves only to wander the streets, and perhaps walk into oncoming traffic — something that I've seen in the news as happening in my general neck of the woods at least twice.
  • Overworked childminders at understaffed facilities not being able to intervene when that same huge-for-his-age boy bites your tiny daughter the third time this year, this time drawing blood.
  • Staff spanking, hitting, kicking, or otherwise physically assaulting any child — you've probably seen the news stories. 
  • Staff or volunteers sexually abusing your child. 

That last one is exactly what happened at the illegal in-home day care Frank and Ileana Fuster ran in Country Walk, Florida, described, among many other places, in Protecting the Gift, Gavin de Becker's book about child safety. That's a book I'd warmly recommend to any parent, just like I'd advise any teen girl and adult woman to read its sister book, The Gift of Fear

One article I came across contained the words:

"Outside of background checks, reviews of the facility and just asking around about the quality of it, there is nothing else to be done to give a parent peace of mind about leaving their child."

Gavin de Becker's books disabuse you of the notion that there's just not that much you can do to prevent abuse in a childcare setting. In the Country Walk case, parent after parent took the Fusters at their word when they falsely claimed to be licensed by the Florida Department for Health and Rehabilitative Services. Two police officers were even among the parents who entrusted their children to a couple who already had a child sexual abuse conviction between them and would go on to victimize children at their illegal day care — or rather, their house of real-world horrors. Since all these parents apparently had enough confidence in this facility to enroll their kids, reviews and asking around wouldn't have helped parents of children who were also considering choosing this horrific facility any. Background checks would have helped, but so would asking pointed questions and heeding those intuitive signals that something's just not right. 

How do you go about that?

Check That A Childcare Facility You Are Considering Is Really Licensed

Don't take the provider's word, and don't stop when you see a framed license somewhere on the premises either, as almost anyone could whip something nearly legit-looking up on their laptop. I've routinely given the same advice when it comes to choosing a tattoo studio — and our children are even more important than not getting hepatitis from a scratcher. If you are in the United States, you can use Child Care Aware [2] as a starting point for checking whether the childcare facility you are considering is licensed. 

How Are The Childcare Facility's Employees Vetted?

Even if the facility you're considering has a license to operate, that doesn't automatically mean all its staff are OK. You want to know a little more about folks who will spend lots of time with your child, and may at times be alone with them. That is why you'll want to look into the US Department of Justice's supplemental guidelines for the screening of persons working with children [3], and make sure your childcare facility has, too.

The guidelines set out three different levels of screening that childcare facilities can use to vet their potential employees:

  • Basic: Checking employment and personal references applicants provide, conducting job interviews, checking that the person has the qualifications they say they do, using written applications, and observing potential employees' actions in a job context.
  • "Frequently used practices": A criminal record check (in the US, this can be done at the local, state, and federal level), a check to see whether the applicant is on the child sex offense registry, and checks into the applicant's employment and vehicle safety records. 
  • "Infrequently used practices": Alcohol and drug testing, home visits, psychological testing. 

Don't forget about volunteers either — the guidelines contain statistics that show that volunteers are subject to background checks much less frequently that potential employees. 

These guidelines are worth a read even if you don't live in the US; they offer an insight into what can be done to vet day care staff, and allow you to decide for yourself what you are and are not comfortable with. You can use what you learn when you read this document to decide what kinds of questions you ask when you vet day care facilities or preschools, but you can also use the extremely useful advice Gavin de Becker provides in his book The Gift of Fear.

Here's just a sample of the kinds of questions he recommends parents ask:

  • Do you ask applicants to bring in a copy of their driving record?
  • Do you inform parents if an employee is suspected of sexual abuse?
  • Will my child always be able to call me when they feel the need?
  • If an accident happens, what hospital will my child be taken to?

The answers you get will be extremely useful, but the way in which you receive them is also going to be telling Evading questions, nervous behavior, and claims that you don't need to ask any of this because everything is in order are all red flags. 

The Facility's Child To Adult Ratio

The US Department of Health and Human Services requires that childcare facilities [4]:

  • Will have at least one adult per child in the newborn to two-year old age group, and a maximum group size of six children
  • Will have at least one adult per child between the ages of 25 and 30 months, with a group no bigger than eight children
  • Will have an adult to child ratio of five to one for children aged 31 to 35 months, and groups of no bigger than 10

This ratio gradually decreases, with one adult per eight children considered OK for six year olds. A higher adult to child ratio means that your little one will receive more one-on-one attention from their day-care providers, increases safety should the children go on day trips, and also makes peer violence and bullying less likely, since there will be more employees to intervene. There's another thing to consider, though — many day-care facilities will have a "two-deep" rule that means no one child should ever be left alone with just one adult. This practice reduces the odds of physical and sexual abuse. As such, it's something you'll want to inquire about.

How Open Is Your Potential Facility To Letting You Poke Around?

Some day care centers are fine with letting parents visit the facility and interact with their child while there, and a few even have cameras installed that let you observe how your child is doing via a password-protected internet page. Other childcare facilities, however, simply expect parents to drop their children off at the door without ever even entering. Not being able to interact with your child in the environment they'll be spending quite a bit of time in doesn't inspire confidence, but neither do facilities who let anyone claiming to be the child's aunt or grandparent come in. 

You'll probably want a day care facility where parents are welcome to visit, but that has a system in place to ensure that strangers neither come in nor are able to sign a child out of the center. Again, ask questions about their procedures, and observe safety precautions as you visit the day care or preschool, such as:

  • Does the facility have a securely locked door and/or gate, which prevents children from leaving and unwanted "guests" from entering?
  • Do the children have fire drills? 
  • Do children ever leave the premises, such as on day trips? What extra precautions are taken for that? Can you opt out of this if you want to?

Your intuition: A powerful ally

"Make careful, slow decisions choices about the people you include in your child's life — and fast decisions about the ones you exclude from your child's life", Gavin de Becker writes. If any aspect of what you observe in your child's day care or preschool rubs you the wrong way, sending "bad vibe" type gut feelings your way at any point, give yourself permission to pull your child out. You do not need evidence to make this decision — not only are the stakes too high to ignore your intuition, your day-care provider provides a service, and you probably wouldn't keep going to a hairdresser you disliked, either. 

My children once lasted three weeks in a day care center. After initially ignoring some of my concerns (mainly, staff preferring that I simply drop my children off at the door and then leave, not being able to observe the environment in which they were spending time), my little daughter, bawling her eyes out saying she didn't want to go anymore as we were riding the tram over there, convinced me that it had been enough. So we got off the tram, had a cup of hot cocoa somewhere, and went home — never to return to the day care. The day care's odd, begging, phone calls to let my children come back did more than enough to confirm I made the right decision. I am still not sure exactly what went on at the day care, but I do know that I sent my children a message that day: I've got your back, and your feelings are important to me. 

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