Lexie’s Law raised standards for Kansas child care, officials say

Two years after the passage of Lexie’s Law — landmark legislation that tightened the regulation of Kansas child care facilities — officials say the quality and availability of child care have increased.

More importantly, they said, Kansas has turned around its once-dismal reputation and now serves as a model for other states when it comes to oversight of small family child care homes.

Five years ago, Kansas ranked 46th in the country for policies that govern child care centers. This year the state catapulted to third place in a report by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, which repeatedly cited Lexie’s Law as among the most significant changes to promote children’s health and safety.

“It’s been a team effort and it’s been a process, but honestly there hasn’t been a lot of pushback,” said Rachel Berroth, director of child care licensing for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“Everyone knew we needed more training to better prepare our providers to protect and care for our children.”

Lexie’s Law was named for 13-month-old Lexie Engelman, who suffered fatal injuries at a Johnson County day care in 2004. Signed into law in 2010, it marked the first major change to the state’s child care standards in more than three decades.

In addition to mandating inspections of day care facilities and training for providers, the measure established a host of requirements for supervising children, including monitoring, diapering and toilet practices, safe-sleep practices and playground oversight.

It also established an online database of child care providers with information about complaints that parents can access.

Lexie’s Law did away with an entire category of day care providers – “registered” day cares, which could care for up to six children but were inspected only in response to complaints. As of February, all providers must be licensed and are inspected regularly.

The change prompted some registered providers to leave the business, Berroth said. Others opted to pursue licensure, a step that allows them to care for up to 10 children instead of six.

More spots available

So although the number of day care homes in Kansas has declined by about 900 under Lexie’s Law, the number of available child care slots has increased — from 44,600 in 2010 to 45,200 in 2011.

“The big picture is this: We’ve got more capacity to serve than ever,” Berroth said. “We did have some closures, which we expected. But there weren’t an alarming number of them.”

In Wichita, the changes have meant packed classrooms at places like Child Start, which offers required professional development for licensed child care providers.

The new law requires providers to receive training in basic child development, pediatric first aid and CPR, safe sleep practices, recognizing signs of child abuse or neglect, and preventing abusive head trauma, known more commonly as shaken-baby syndrome.

Attendance at Child Start’s two-hour “Safe Slumber” workshop has more than doubled since February, said Cheryl Dunn, outreach coordinator for the local referral and training agency.

“We have seen an astronomical increase” in training, Dunn said. “Our comments and evaluations so far have been very good. Providers have found them useful.”

Newly licensed child care providers must complete their required training within 30 days of starting their businesses; established providers have until February 2013 to complete the training.

Some local day care workers said the new regulations are stringent but reasonable, and even veteran providers said they have gleaned new information from the required professional development classes.

Cathy Cavanaugh, director of Creation Station, a Christian-based child care center at Glorious Life Church in Derby, said a recent training session about common behavior problems gave her and her teachers new strategies for dealing with temper tantrums and other issues.

“We had a (staff) meeting last week, and all the conversation turned to what we learned in that class,” Cavanaugh said. “Everybody learned something, even people who have been doing this a long time.”

Another class on pediatric first aid came in handy recently when a child in Cavanaugh’s care spiked a high fever during a nap and experienced a febrile seizure, she said.

“We knew what to do, and we did it,” Cavanaugh said. “Everyone was on the same page, and it was because of that training. … That training is one of the best things about Lexie’s Law.”

Deaths spurred law

One impetus for the legislation was concern over the number of child care deaths. In the four years preceding the passage of Lexie’s Law, 27 children died in child care settings, including a Wichita toddler who died in 2008 after being strapped into a too-small car seat and left for more than two hours in a laundry room. The child care provider in that case was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Berroth, the state official, said regular inspections and professional training — hallmarks of Lexie’s Law — are aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

“We know providers are better supported, children are better protected, families are better informed,” she said.

Nancy Jensen, child care licensing supervisor for Wichita’s Office of Environmental Health, said the new law has increased the workload for inspectors but “it has not been outrageous.”

Currently in Sedgwick County there are 814 licensed day care homes, 95 child care centers, 24 preschools, 101 school-age programs and a handful of other child care facilities, such as Head Start and the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Tweaks to Lexie’s Law since its passage allowed inspectors to delay return visits to day cares with clean records in order to focus on newly licensed, never-before-inspected child care homes. It also put the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in charge of inspecting residential facilities, detention centers and group boarding homes.

Dunn, of Child Start, said she “gets a little emotional” when she talks about recent strides Kansas has made in child care training and oversight.

“You can always do better, but this is such a huge step forward,” she said.