Achieving uniform lead-safety rules for child care centers is complicated, advocates say

The state currently has a patchwork of standards for in-home child care, standalone centers and preschools. Advocates urge more uniform rules. (Photo illustration)

Cleveland, Ohio – In the push this year to pass historic legislation that set a lead-safe standard for Cleveland rental homes, the question of how to create similar protections in child care centers was sidelined – temporarily.

Lead safety advocates had pressed for local child care center protections that would require inspections and certification similar to rentals, and the provision was part of a citizen ballot initiative proposal.

The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition and city council members, however, said the issue involved layers of local, county and state licensing and regulation and was too complicated to unfurl quickly.

The coalition, comprised of public, private and philanthropic partners promised to examine the patchwork of current standards for in-home child care, standalone centers and preschools, and to urge county and state officials to set a uniform lead-safe standard.

The state, in partnership with county agencies, licensed and inspected 3,500 home day cares and 4,000 standalone child care facilities across Ohio from October 2018 through the end of September, according to the Job and Family Services yearly report. About 285,000 children spent time in those homes and centers and more than 40 percent received state subsidies each month.

LSCC Policy Committee Chair Mark McDermott said that a coalition committee has sifted through current standards and practices with an aim toward recommending changes that could create an “across the board” lead-safe child care standard.

The question that remains, he said, is: What gets us there?

To figure that out, the coalition is researching best practices from other states and will hire a consultant with experience in navigating state-level policy.

Billie Osborne-Fears, coalition member and executive director of Starting Point, a non-profit that connects families with quality child care, said the coalition committee, which she co-chairs, is working to find ways to reduce risks for kids that don’t create hardships for providers.

“When the rules were written, we didn’t know what we know today,” she said.

State law and administrative codes governing family child care and other centers licensed by the state say children must be protected from “lead hazards.” But the methods for carrying out the mandate are not clearly defined and do not include inspections by qualified lead assessors.

Not all in-home day care centers are required to be licensed and inspected, including providers that serve six children or less, unless they receive state funding.

For those that must be licensed, the inspection falls under state child care licensing rules, which are less stringent than those used in other departments, like the state health department.

A state child care inspection might look for visual signs of chipping and peeling paint. A health department inspector would perform scientific testing to determine whether that peeling or chipping paint contained hazardous levels of lead, which can cause damage to a child’s developing brain.

Stand-alone day care centers, which are not in homes, fall under a mix of regulations depending on whether they serve children who receive state subsidies for their care. In Cleveland, the centers also must be licensed by the health department after passing building code and fire inspections. Cleveland officials did not provide information on whether building inspections required for licensing include an assessment for lead or peeling paint in older homes.

Protections from hazard

Licensing for what the state calls “family child care centers” that operate in a provider’s home require that children be protected from lead hazards indoors and in outdoor play areas.

Inspections of those centers are carried out by county job and family service departments.

In Cuyahoga County, 465 “Type B” homes are currently licensed that can provide care for up to six children and 23 homes are licensed as “Type A” providers, which are able to serve up to 12 children, according to county officials.

These licensing specialists operate in a kind of “gray area” where they ask questions about potential lead hazards but are not trained or certified to make determinations about the presence of lead, a toxin often found in older paint, said Robyn Gibson, who oversees inspections for the county.

The initial licensing application asks about knowledge of lead hazards, said Gibson, although she cannot recall anyone ever checking the “yes” box.

Licensing specialists also can ask about cracked, chipping or peeling paint, which on its own can be a safety violation, she said.

An applicant might be asked to scrape paint so that there is no longer cracking or peeling, or to repair and repaint damaged areas, she said.

Center operators have a slew of rules and regulations to follow and are visited regularly by licensing specialists, said Mary Ann Rody, executive director of the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers. She surveyed the association’s board members last week, and all agreed that current building code inspections are sufficient.

“We already have to adhere to strict standards,” she said.

The National Center for Health Housing in October released “Lead-Safe Toolkit for Home-based Child Care” that includes prevention practices and policies, which include older homes getting an assessment from a certified lead inspector or lead risk assessor.

Preschools are regulated and inspected by the state department of education, unless they are licensed by the Department of Job and Family Services. Standards don’t explicitly mention lead hazards or require an inspection by a trained lead-risk assessor.

But licensing specialists do mark programs as “non-compliant” for peeling paint or unclean areas with excess dust, which are associated with lead hazards in older structures, Mandy Minnick, deputy director for communications said.

State-level changes

At the state level, steps are underway to examine current processes, LeeAnne Cornyn, director of Children’s Initiatives for Gov. Mike DeWine, said.

Cornyn said part of the work of the governor’s recently appointed Lead Safe Advisory committee will be to ask: What can we do to create a uniform safety net?

The state has decided on some interim administrative changes, Cornyn said, which will have child care licensing specialists who spot indicators of lead-risk refer providers to local or county health departments or another agency that can assist with more in-depth lead assessments.

“Visual inspections are the key service we can provide,” she said. Though Cornyn said that scraping of peeling paint should not be part of the guidance provided. Scraping lead-based paint can release dangerous levels of dust if proper safety procedures aren’t followed.

The rigorous standards for state-licensed child care centers should be comparable to department of education standards and uniform with any standard that might be created for the state’s foster care system, which currently does not have any set standard for keeping children lead safe, Cornyn said.

Any more substantive changes, she said, have to be balanced with increased standards that will be implemented next year as part of the state’s “Step Up to Quality” rating system. The pace of any changes also has to take into account the available workforce to carry out lead inspections.

“We don’t want to create barriers,” she said.