The Texas Workforce Commission spent nearly $50 million in the last two years subsidizing day care centers and child care providers with troubled track records caring for the state’s neediest kids — including sexual and physical abuse, kidnapping, and leaving infants to suffocate and die in their cribs.
In one 2008 case, a Dallas provider left a 19-month-old in a van for seven hours. The baby died at the hospital. That same year, an Austin provider had her license revoked for trying to cover up physical abuse, including fracturing a 5-month-old’s skull in two places. In another case, a Pasadena childcare operator left a baby bottle in the microwave too long; it exploded, and an infant was so badly burned that the injury required skin grafts.
A Texas Tribune review of licensed child care centers found that at least 135 subsidized facilities had their licenses revoked or denied by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) between 2008 and 2009 and had their funding immediately suspended. Another 250 subsidized facilities put on probation during that time period continued to receive federal funds through the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC); there’s no prohibition against it.
TWC officials say their job is to distribute federal day care subsidies so that the state's low-income parents can work or find employment. Policing the facilities falls to DFPS, which licenses day cares and conducts abuse investigations. Both agencies say they work together to protect kids: DFPS notifies the TWC within a day when a facility has been shut down and within a week when other problems have been reported. And TWC officials notify parents in writing when a child care provider runs into trouble — and relocate children to safer facilities when serious problems occur. “TWC works closely with DFPS to ensure that all providers receiving subsidized child care funds are in full compliance with the law,” says TWC spokeswoman Lisa Givens.
Advocates for children say it’s unacceptable that the kids who could most benefit from high quality early childhood education often aren’t getting it. They say the thousands of day care centers accepting taxpayer dollars to care for Texas’ 114,000 subsidized kids should face an even higher burden for providing safe and instructive care. “These moms and dads cannot choose to stay home — they have to have somewhere to leave their child,” says Susan Craven, executive director of the Texas Association for Infant Mental Health. “If the government is willing to pay for childcare, then the government should be responsible for making sure it’s high quality.”
But the millions of federal dollars the TWC pays every year to troubled facilities — some of them making more than $300,000 a year — is just a fraction of the agency’s $460 million child care budget. Some child welfare experts say refusing to fund facilities on probation would be a huge mistake, because day cares accepting subsidies are already in such short supply. Ann Hatchitt, communications director for the TWC, said probation can sometimes be caused by relatively minor infractions that don't endanger a child.
The licensed day care centers aren’t the only problem facilities. A Texas Tribune cross-reference of the TWC’s child care providers with the Department of Public Safety’s criminal records database found that only a small number of federally subsidized caretakers — less than 1 percent — had criminal histories. But hundreds of Texans whose home addresses are the same as providers who care for children in their homes have criminal records. Dozens of them have felony convictions.
These scenarios can have frightening outcomes. In 2009, a San Antonio child care operator had her license renewal denied for failing to stop her 14-year-old son from molesting a 5-year-old in her care. That same year, investigators were called to a Euless in-home facility after a worker allowed adolescent children to engage in sexual activity. When authorities arrived, the woman was arrested for having outstanding warrants in four states. And in 2008, a Port Arthur-area provider had her license revoked for allowing a convicted rapist to live at her in-home day care. The woman had been put on probation repeatedly over the years for allowing the “high risk” sex offender to live with her and lying about it to authorities.
Some of these child care providers also have existing track records with DFPS, the agency that oversees them. In 2009, a Houston day care center was shut down after the director punched a 7-year-old disabled child in the mouth, knocking out his tooth. The provider had already been investigated by the state for allowing his own 2-year-old son to fall into a bathtub. And in 2008, a woman whose biological child had been taken into custody by DFPS’ Child Protective Services division kidnapped a child from the Houston day care center where she worked.
Having an investigative past with DFPS doesn’t always preclude someone from working in a day care, or living with an in-home care provider. But some criminal records do. By agency policy, prospective child care workers are ineligible if they’ve ever committed certain types of felony offenses, like sex crimes. Many other felony crimes committed within the last 10 years are reviewed through a risk evaluation process. And day care providers are required to run background checks on anyone 14 or older who moves into the home or day care operation. "We are focused on child safety," DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins says.
Hatchitt says the TWC has "enacted more stringent rules over the past several years to require criminal background checks and sex offender registry checks for home-based child care providers." While even "one child at risk is too many," she says, the majority of these cases involve in-home care, meaning the parent or guardian has not notified the TWC that someone with a criminal record has moved into the house. "If anyone with a record of crimes against children is residing in any homes receiving child care funding," she says, "TWC will immediately stop funding and will report these cases to local law enforcement."
Poor child care isn’t just a problem for kids on subsidized care. Less than 7 percent of Texas’ licensed child care centers meet national best-practice standards, according to a recent study by the Texas Association for Infant Mental Health. Meanwhile, Texas day care workers — who make just over $16,000 a year, on average, according to the study — are only required to have eight hours of training before they care for a child. It takes 200 times more training to get a license to cut hair in Texas.
Advocates say there’s been a systemic erosion of the quality of care in Texas day care centers since 2001. That’s the year the Legislature moved millions of federal dollars set aside for childcare quality improvement away from the TWC’s 28 regional workforce development boards, and over to DFPS — the regulatory arm. “When we put the emphasis on policing child care centers, versus building robust systems, look at the outcomes we achieve,” says Eileen Garcia, executive director of Texans Care for Children.
Some advocates argue the TWC should dedicate more resources to checking the conditions at day care centers, particularly because federal child care subsidies make up 60 percent of the agency’s total budget. But F. Scott McCown, a former state district judge and executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says it’s misguided to think the TWC should shoulder responsibility for child care quality control. “It would not be fair to the providers, nor good for the low-income families, to have the Workforce Commission developing some kind of second system,” he says.
If that happened, McCown says, the already limited pool of child care providers that accept subsidies would dry up — and low-income parents would be in a serious bind. “We provide an inadequate subsidy, and we’ve got a marginally adequate system, where low-income parents already have a tough time finding day care,” McCown says. “I don’t think suspending funding or closing down a lot of facilities would produce a higher class of options for low-income families.”
Craven, with the infant mental health group, says that’s McCown’s theory. But she says no one has proved that putting tougher standards in place leads to fewer options for low-income parents. “Where’s the research?” she asks.
And state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says something has to change. She says efforts made last legislative session to increase child care worker training, heighten qualifications for providers and implement FBI background checks got snarled up — the result of cost concerns and massive delays over the controversial voter ID bill. She’s already got her bills ready to go for next session, 10 months ahead of schedule.
Says Nelson: “To know that we are paying people to watch our children who shouldn’t be close to a child is just frightening to me.”
*The original version of this story said that 35 child care providers caring for children in their homes lived with individuals who had felony criminal records involving children. After an internal review, the Texas Workforce Commission said in 20 if those instances, the provider goes to the child's home to provide care, meaning the individual with the criminal record is not present. The other 15 cases are under review.