Indiana’s unlicensed child-care ministries soar-WEB ONLY



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The
number of unlicensed, faith-based child care centers has grown by nearly 30
percent in Indiana
since 2001, worrying supporters of state-licensed child-care centers struggling
to hold their own.

The state’s child care ministries are tax exempt and face minimal regulations,
unlike Indiana’s highly regulated licensed centers, The Fort Wayne Journal
Gazette reported yesterday.

Last year alone, child-care ministries increased by 43 statewide, or 7 percent,
while the number of child-care centers remained level. At the same time,
licensed centers have lost enrollment, a development that concerns state
officials.

“When their enrollment dips due to the economy, it makes it difficult for
[licensed centers] to make ends meet,” said Melanie Brizzi, who heads the
state’s Bureau of Child Care. “I don’t want to lose any licensed centers
during this economic downturn because when parents get back to work, they will
need child care again.”

Since 2001, the number of child-care ministries has grown 27 percent, compared
with an 11-percent drop for centers, according to state figures.

Ministries are inspected by the state twice yearly and are required to verify
their tax-exempt status. They must meet basic fire and sanitation regulations,
but have no enrollment cap except for fire-code limits.

And unlike licensed child care centers, ministries have no staff training
requirements or child-staff ratios, which are considered the biggest gauge of
child safety by state officials.

Although child-care ministries are inspected by the state, in March 2006 those
inspections went from four times a year to twice, partly because state
inspectors could not keep up with the growing number of ministries.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s CareFinder Web site
lists 704 child-care ministries, although Brizzi said 730 actually exist. Of
those, only 15 are involved in a voluntary certification program in which they
agree to tougher standards, she said.

In contrast, there are 605 child-care centers listed on the FSSA’s Web site.
Brizzi said 22 new licensed centers are proposed.

Only 11 other states exempt religious organizations from child-care licensing,
according to a 2007 report by the National Association for Regulatory
Administration and the National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance
Center
.

For parents who believe all child care is the same, it can be confusing, said
Mike Garatoni, president of the Indiana Association of Licensed Child Care
Centers.

“Parents think the state’s protecting them, and they’re really not,”
said Garatoni, who operates four centers in South Bend
and Elkhart.

That’s
not to say that unlicensed child-care centers aren’t a good option. Thousands
of families use them every year with great success. They are often more
affordable than licensed centers.

Indiana‘s child-care
ministries outnumbered licensed centers in 2004 for the first time, and state
officials said in 2007 that their growth is largely due to an influx of federal
child-care dollars that can go to religious and nonreligious groups.

That year, about 19 percent of the $201 million in child aid for needy families
went to ministries; 42 percent went to centers, according to state figures.

Although the Bureau of Child Care previously has pushed for child-staff ratios
for ministries, there have been no recent legislative efforts, said Brizzi, the
bureau’s director.

Meanwhile, licensed centers are in “defensive mode” to stop new
requirements from being placed on them and not on unlicensed providers, said
Garatoni.

He maintains the number of licensed centers is declining, “and when you
think that the number of 4-year-olds is growing, we’re going in the wrong
direction in licensed care.”

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