Every day, parents shopping for day care call the Child Start office in Wichita. And just about every day, Clairissa Maddy has to explain that thousands of child care homes in Kansas — about one in three — operate without ever being inspected.
"There's a lot of confusion," said Maddy, senior manager of the call center at Child Start, a nonprofit resource and referral agency.
"Parents assume that if someone has a piece of paper from the state, that checks have been done, that everything's been inspected ... We have to explain that's not really the case."
That's about to change. State lawmakers this week passed Lexie's Law, a measure that will tighten regulation of child care facilities and require that all day cares be licensed and inspected.
The measure is named for 13-month-old Lexie Engelman, who suffered fatal injuries at a Johnson County day care in 2004. It marks the first major change to the state's child care standards in more than three decades.
"This is historic," said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who supported the bill. "It really needed to happen, and I am thrilled we finally got it through."
In addition to mandating inspections, the measure directs the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to create regulations that detail requirements for supervising children, including monitoring, diapering and toilet practices, safe-sleep practices and playground oversight. It also will establish an online database of day cares with information about complaints that parents can access.
Kim Engelman, the mother of Lexie, for whom the measure is named, said she thinks her daughter's death could have been prevented if her child care provider had followed the supervision standards spelled out in the bill.
"It could have been prevented, and it should have been prevented," Engelman said.
"When we started along this road five years ago, we didn't know what the end would be, but we wanted to be sure that something good came out of Lexie's death. Our hope is that, through inspections and other standards put in place, other tragedies will be prevented."
Under current law, child care providers in Kansas fall into two categories: licensed and registered. Licensed child care homes, which can care for up to 10 children, must meet health, safety and space requirements. They are inspected yearly by city or county health officials.
Registered day cares may care for up to six children, including the provider's children. They fill out a checklist for standards but are not inspected and are visited only in response to complaints.
Under Lexie's Law, which is awaiting the governor's signature, KDHE will gradually eliminate the registered status for day cares, moving all those homes to a licensed status by July 2011.
"We really need to bring our procedures into the 21st century, and this allows us to do that," said Kelly, the state senator. "We're way behind other states."
For the past several years, national child care groups have given Kansas dismal grades.
In 2008, Kansas was one of 15 states to receive a zero score for its standards and oversight of family child care homes in a study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. The year before, the agency ranked Kansas 46th in the country for policies that govern child care centers.
The rankings prompted a statewide listening tour during which state officials collected feedback from providers, parents and others about child care policies. Suggestions included doing away with registered child care and putting more information online.
Another impetus for legislation was concern over the number of deaths that have occurred in child care settings. According to Kansas Action for Children, 27 children have died in child care settings since 2007.
"As a parent, it always kind of makes your heart lurch to leave your baby," said Teresa Rupp, executive director of Child Start. "It would make me feel a little bit better to know that the place I'm leaving my baby had at least been inspected."
On average, state health officials issue about two dozen emergency orders a year to suspend child care licenses. Some recent cases:
* In March, officials ordered the emergency closure of a day care in south Wichita because of "numerous violations," including one in which the registered provider pulled a gun on a man at the house with children present.
* In January, another Wichita provider's license was suspended after police found that two small children had been left strapped in car seats in her unheated home while she cooked at another home.
* About a year ago, Jessica Cummings was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the March 2008 death of a child in her care. An investigation determined that the toddler was strapped into a too-small car seat and left for more than two hours in a laundry room.
Nancy Jensen, child care licensing supervisor for Wichita and Sedgwick County, said the measure will dramatically increase the workload for local inspectors. At last count, almost 600 of the county's 1,400 child care facilities were registered and would have to be inspected in coming months.
"We're trying to reduce the fiscal impact and be able to do this right at the same time, and that's going to be a little bit of an adjustment," Jensen said.
Six employees in Wichita's Office of Environmental Health inspect all child care centers, day care homes, before- and after-school programs, summer camps, child care drop-off sites and residential facilities such as the Wichita Children's Home, Jensen said.
Depending on the facility, inspections can take less than an hour to three hours or more.
"It's not about cutting them off at the knees and saying, 'Man, we gotcha!' " Jensen said. "We really try to work with them and help them.... And most of the (child care) providers are awesome, awesome providers who truly care about children."
To help pay for additional inspections, the measure raises fees for child care facilities and directs the funds to licensing agencies rather than the state's general fund.
Child care centers will pay up to $150 a year to be licensed; homes will pay up to $75 a year. Currently the state fee is $5 a year for a registered home and $15 a year for a licensed home.
"Yes, the fees are more, but I think they are reasonable," said Kelly, the legislator. "The new inspection process is relatively self-sustaining, and that's what we were aiming for."