FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Federal inspectors found that Florida is not adequately enforcing its rules at child care facilities, discovering violations that exposed children to potential electrocution, poisoning and other injuries, according to two federal reports released Friday to The Associated Press.
The Department of Health and Human Services reports are the latest in a series looking at how well states enforce their own rules governing child care centers. Out of 227 facilities inspected in nine states and Puerto Rico, only nine had no health or safety violations, the department found.
The inspected centers are believed to be representative of their state's facilities and receive federal subsidies for low-income children, officials said. The U.S. government spends $5.4 billion annually subsidizing daycare.
"Child care affects everyone. It affects your kids, it affects my kids. My take away (from the reports) is we have got to do better," said George Nedder, acting deputy regional inspector general at Health and Human Services.
In Florida, which Nedder said had typical reports, the department's inspectors found the state is not adequately enforcing its own regulations governing the more than 9,000 child care businesses that receive federal subsidies. Most operations also take higher-income children who don't receive subsidies. The state's Office of Early Learning oversees the subsidy program and the Department of Children and Families handles licensing and inspections.
The federal inspectors in 2014 visited four Florida child care centers and 16 homes where residents operate child care businesses, issuing separate but similar reports for each category. All 20 had at least one violation.
The federal auditors found that while Florida inspected child care centers three times annually and licensed child care homes two times, as the state required, some still had serious violations. Examples included kitchen knives and cleaning chemicals left in places where children could get them; peeling paint; a leaking ceiling; a blocked emergency exit; a broken toilet seat; and an unlocked gate allowing children access to a high-voltage circuit box.
Many facilities also lacked required paperwork showing children were properly vaccinated or that employees had been screened for criminal records or trained.
Florida has a major loophole, the report said: The state doesn't require child care inspectors to record violations if they can be explained or fixed immediately. That means future inspectors don't know if similar violations are being repeated. Michelle Gladys, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said such violations are noted in reports and the department will work with the federal government to clear up any confusion.
Also, while inspections work best when unannounced, licensed home-based child care businesses are told a visit will happen during a 45-day window, the report said. That gives them an opportunity to violate the rules if they know no inspection is pending.
The report also noted another loophole: Only 15 of Florida's 67 counties require home child care facilities to be licensed and inspected by the state. In the other 52 counties, home child care businesses can choose to be licensed and inspected, but are only required to register. Those facilities avoid routine inspection. Instead, they submit an annual checklist attesting they are in compliance with four health and safety requirements.
Rodney MacKinnon, executive director of the state Office of Early Learning, said Florida will soon close two loopholes noted in the report involving registered home child care facilities that receive subsidies. All will now be subject to annual, unannounced inspections.
He said his concern about the reports is the small sample size and hopes next time the federal government visits more facilities.
"Of course, we could always do better," he said.