Last week a front page story in the Washington Post shared the tragic death of 3-month-old Camden Lafkin in a Virginia child care program. The child care provider and Camden’s cause of death are under investigation. What is known is that the program was unlicensed. (Virginia does not require an individual to obtain a child care license unless the provider cares for six or more children in the home – seven or more if the individual is caring for her own children since they are exempt from the official count of children in the home).
Arlington County in Virginia has stronger protections for children in child care than the state requires. Instead of leaving children to chance until 6 or more children are in the home, Arlington County requires all providers who care for 4 or more children to obtain a child care license. Individuals who wish to care for one to three children in their home must follow county child care standards for licensed programs (a local permitting requirement). These smaller homes must follow the same rules. If they are found out of compliance, they have 10 days to address any violations or they are assessed penalties and required to close.
This means that in Arlington County, all family child care home providers are subject to background checks, minimum health and safety protections for children, and inspections.
For child care centers, Arlington County requires all centers to be licensed (i.e., no exemptions for centers affiliated with religious organizations—the setting of the children is paramount, not the sponsor of the center). Arlington County has more professional requirements for child care center directors compared to state requirements. The county also requires more minimum education for child care center teachers than the state requires. Further promoting quality child care, Arlington County requires a lower child:staff ratio to promote safety and more effective interaction between staff and children compared to the state and limits the size of each group within each classroom. The state of Virginia has no group size restrictions.
For 40 years, Arlington County has been looking out for the safety of children. This week, we learned the county board is recommending the closure of the Arlington County Office of Child Care and repeal of the Arlington County child care regulations, which would save $250,000. The effect of this would be for child care in Arlington County to revert back to state standards.
Child Care Aware® of America’s state licensing reports grade the state of Virginia as a “D” with regard to child care centers and an “F” with regard to family child care homes. Newspaper stories have relayed the safety issues leading to child tragedies across the state.
- Baby Dylan Cummings died in a license-exempt program in Norfolk.
- Baby Camden Lafkin died in a child care program in rural Shanandoah.
- Baby Teagan Sample died in a child care program in Bristow.
- A provider in Manassas was charged with endangering children in an unlicensed program where six infants were cared for by one provider without a license.
- Several newspaper stories in the past year have detailed sexual abuses against children by other adults living in the home of child care providers.
It is time for state policymakers to protect children in child care. Overall, child care licensing in Virginia needs to have stronger protections for children. It is disappointing and troubling that Arlington County would abandon its strong stance for child protection and say that the state law is enough. The state law is weak at best. No doubt, difficult decisions need to be made with regard to the county budget. But, shouldn’t the safety of children be a top priority? What is a child’s life worth? Leaving children to chance is not worth the gamble. State and county policy should do better for families.