Chesterton Tribune

Baby's drowning fuels debate over lack of church daycare licensing

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The drowning of a 1-year-old boy at an Indianapolis church’s daycare is rekindling debate over whether church-related daycares should be licensed by the state.

State law allows religious nonprofits to register their daycares with the state, but the facilities avoid much of the oversight that licensed daycares face. Only about 5 percent of church daycares are licensed through the Family and Social Services Administration.

But as the number of faith-based daycares grows — they now outnumber licensed daycares 730 to 601 — some are questioning whether more regulation is needed, The Indianapolis Star reported.

"A lot of these places are not even passing the sniff test,” said Ted Maple, director of the Success By 6 program at the United Way of Central Indiana, which helps unlicensed faith-based daycares strengthen their safety standards. “We’ve seen some places in such disrepair they have no business being in business. We have two sets of rules here, and this is our children we’re talking about.”

The differences in requirements for licensed and unlicensed faith-based ministries are vast.

Licensed centers must follow 192 rules; the unlicensed faith-based ministries, 21. Licensed centers must have one adult for every four infants and every five toddlers. There is no ratio requirement for unlicensed centers.

Religious nonprofits have fought repeated legislative efforts to eliminate the licensing disparity.

State Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, took her name off a watered-down bill this session that defined daycare ministries and established an advisory council. The bill would have weeded out some of the shadiest daycares not affiliated with any church, but that was a long way from narrowing the disparity, she said.

“We need to do more,” Breaux said. “We are abdicating our responsibility. We have done nothing to address the real problem.”

Many religious organizations say faith-based daycares are regulated enough and contend that once a child care is licensed by the state, the government can control what goes on inside.

“If the state says we can regulate child care, does that mean they can regulate Sunday school, too?” asked lobbyist Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana. “The constitution is set up to keep the state separate from religious institutions.”

He said just the threat that the government would intrude on religious speech would prompt some pastors to refuse to take government vouchers for meals and other expenses, which would put the daycares out of business.

“Or it could drive them underground,” he said. “That would be unfortunate at a time when there seems to be a child-care shortage.”

Cecil Seagle, executive director for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, said the group would not want more government oversight.

“Our experience has been that controlling what can and cannot be said is part of the regulatory process,” Seagle said.

Stephanie Dill, director of Crosstown Daycare, said her faith-based center in Greenfield has staffing consistent with standards in licensed centers. It also does criminal background checks on employees and is inspected twice a year, she said.

The center is affiliated with Browns Chapel Wesleyan Church, and Dill said church officials occasionally discuss whether they should seek licensing.

The most concerning issues are “how much more will be required of us” and whether the state would infringe on the religious teachings, Dill said.

“It (religion) is a big part of what we do -- prayer and Bible lessons,” she said.

Dan Cramer, director of Westside Christian Preschool/Child Care at Westside Church of the Nazarene in Indianapolis, said the state never questions his educational programs.

“Our lessons are posted right inside,” he said. “I consider the licensing requirements another check and balance on fire, safety and health.”

Other faith-based daycares are embracing efforts to raise standards.

At St. Mary’s Child Center in Indianapolis, executive director Connie Sherman said the facility switched from registered ministry to licensed daycare “because we made a decision to be the best.”

Ninety-five percent of the children at St. Mary’s live in poverty, and the parents are charged $5 a week. Sherman said the center made a commitment that the children “shouldn’t be cheated on quality because they are poor.”

Others are participating in an FSSA program called Paths to Quality.

Kids Kastle, a Fishers daycare affiliated with Trinity Wesleyan Church, is participating in the program. Daycare director Karen Baker said no one has indicated religion was in jeopardy.

“As we move forward, we do want to make sure we keep our identity in the ministry,” Baker said. “There have been no red flags at this point. We also know if there are, we can at any time leave the process.”


Posted 3/19/2012