A search for the perfect day care

Styles and licensing rules vary among day care homes in the Tampa Bay area counties.

Published June 19, 2007

TAMPA - Children's books and toys sit where Michelle Nowell's dining room furniture used to be. A pint-sized table and chairs have replaced her couches. Her walls are painted a brilliant yellow.

This is Nowell's home, a space she has transformed to mimic a little schoolhouse. The 35-year-old mother of three is devoting her life to educating small ones in an intimate environment, her long waiting list a testament to her abilities.

Across the bay in Dunedin, the three babies that Shawn Hoopingarner watches - ages 9 to 13 months - climb over the furniture and explore the house. There's circle time and music time and a sunny Florida room devoted to them.

Nowell and Hoopingarner are among more than 1, 300 licensed home child care providers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and make the case that not all day care homes are the same.

The recent arrest of a licensed home child care worker in northern Hillsborough County, accused of shaking a baby, made safe child care a hot topic. But for working parents everywhere, finding good child care remains an age-old problem.

Licensing rules vary widely from county to county, and caregivers' styles vary from home to home.

"Different people do it differently, " said Linda Stoller, manager of Hillsborough County's child care licensing program. "Parents shouldn't assume that everyone is doing it the same."

Denitra Perkins, 24, knows firsthand.

"I looked everywhere and interviewed everyone, " said Perkins, mother to 2-year-old daughter, Nayya. "It was very hard."

When a spot opened up at Nowell's home, Perkins quickly jumped on it. She drives 45 minutes from Riverview to drop Nayya off at Nowell's home in the central part of Tampa.

"I don't care about the long drive, " Perkins said. "Finding someone you can trust is my main goal. You don't want to be wondering during the day, "Is my baby okay? If she cries, is someone comforting her and hugging her?' "

Nayya not only gets love and affection. She also is now potty trained, knows her days of the week and sings her ABCs, Perkins said.

Some parents may want a structured curriculum, as Nowell offers, while others prefer a cozier environment.

"There are lots of different ways that people do it and do it well, " Stoller said. "That's why we encourage parents to go out and take a look."

It also is worth taking a look at your county's regulatory system, and checking up on the homes you are considering.

Only six Florida counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, have their own licensing offices that regulate home child care. The other counties, including Pasco, operate under the state's eyes. Under those rules, home caregivers don't have to be licensed, only registered.

The difference is dramatic. The licensing process involves background screening, training and regular inspections. Best of all, an interested parent can read online inspection reports from any home computer.

Hillsborough and Pinellas created their own offices because they wanted to exceed state standards, Stoller said. In Hillsborough, any home care provider who accepts money, except for relatives, must be licensed.

In Pinellas, an exception is made for a trusted neighbor, best friend or relative. All other circumstances require a license. Training for that license touches on everything from emergency care to nutrition and safety. The provider also must undergo a criminal background check and a home evaluation.

Hillsborough inspectors make at least three unannounced visits to most child care homes a year. In Pinellas, it's two. Followup visits depend on the inspection results.

Even Nowell, who has been licensed for seven years, is reinspected. At her most recent surprise inspection at her Star Brite Learning Center, she was written up for a loose rope on a swing set and for a container of laundry detergent and bleach that were partly hidden behind a curtain.

"There are things I either hadn't noticed or didn't realize were part of the rules, " said Nowell, who is pursing national accreditation, which has even stricter standards. "I will happily do everything I can to provide a safe environment for my babies."

During potty time, Nowell disinfects the toilet seat between children. She wipes down the table and chairs after they've had their snack. At afternoon playtime outside, Nowell provides bottles of chilled water for each of the five children.

Nowell, who has a degree in early childhood education and once worked at a day care center, provides a curriculum that includes learning a letter of the alphabet a week, an art corner, a science lab that features "Xena" the cockatiel, and a dress-up play area.

The children in her care, ages 2 to 5, smile widely for the camera. They're used to "Miss Michelle" and her husband, "Mr. Bruce, " taking photographs to show their parents.

When "school" lets out, Nowell's husband and three sons, 16, 14 and 10, eat dinner on the floor or in their bedrooms. Whenever they host family gatherings, they must rent tables and chairs for the back yard. Clearly, Nowell has changed her lifestyle to carry out her passion.

While licensing offices can ensure a safe and clean environment, it's up to parents to seek out the provider that meets their children's needs.

"If a caregiver is warm and giving, these are things we cannot regulate, " said Linda Tamanini, executive director of the Pinellas County License Board. "But it is important because it is the basic bonding relationship between adult and child that enables the child to feel secure and be able to learn and thrive."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or 813 269-5312.

Fast Facts:

Pinellas child care figures

Number of licensed family child care homes (as of April): 649

Rule: All providers must be licensed. A household-to-household exemption allows one household to care for children in another household involving a close friend, a trusted neighbor or a relative.

Maximums: Five children in a family day care home; no more than three children can be under 2.

Violations seen most often: Outdated paperwork and incomplete records of such files as vaccinations, medical history and emergency contact information.

Penalty for not being licensed: The county will ask that children be dismissed within the week and work with the home to get licensed. A fine of $100 can be imposed for repeat violators.


Finding good home child care

- Think about the person, the practices, the procedures.

- Ask about their background, how long they've been doing it.

- Visit and watch how the person interacts with the children. Do the children seem happy and well-cared for?

- Look for materials: books, blocks, puzzles, art supplies. Is the caregiver going to provide the messy activities children need?

- Does the provider talk to the child ("Your doll's red blanket looks so warm and cozy" as opposed to just barking out orders to sit, don't hit, etc.)?

- Do they do a lot of activities? Are they sitting in front of the TV?

- Is the home clean?

- What kinds of meals and snacks are provided?

- Is there an outdoor space that's safe and clean? Do the children go outdoors every day?

- What is their vacation policy? Do they have a legal substitute?

Sources: Linda Stoller, manager of Hillsborough County's child care licensing program; Linda Tamanini, executive director of the Pinellas County License Board:

Check them out

-Check out detailed inspection reports online of your child's licensed home care provider at myflorida.com/childcare/provider.

Files with complaints and commendations can be viewed at licensing offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

In Pinellas, call the licensing office at (727) 547-5800. In Hillsborough, call the licensing office at (813) 272-6487.


Child care figures


Number of licensed family child care homes: 93.

Number of registered home child care centers: 84.

Maximums: Four children (under 1 year); or six children (maximum of three under 1 year); six children older than 1 year; 10 children if no more than five are preschool age and, of those five, no more than two are under 1 year old.

Violations seen most often: Record keeping.

Penalty for not being licensed: None, but must be registered.


Number of licensed family child care homes (as of April): 672

Rule: All providers must be licensed if money changes hands (relatives are exempt).

Maximums: Four infants under 1; or six children (no more than three under 1); or 10 children (no more than five can be preschoolers or younger. Of those five, only two can be under 1.)

Violations seen most often: loose playground equipment, open gate, electrical outlet not covered.

Penalty for not being licensed: County will seek an injunction to close down the home and try to get provider licensed. They could face misdemeanor charges.

Sources: Linda Stoller, manager of Hillsborough County's child care licensing program; Linda Tamanini, executive director of the Pinellas County License Board; and Terry Field, a regional manager for the Florida Department of Children and Families.