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    Providers chafe under limits

    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    After naps and snacks, Janet Hartman reads to the children she watches in her St. Petersburg home. Hartman cares for five children, the limit for day-care homes in Pinellas.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


    Claiming Pinellas' stringent home day-care rules crimp their business, 10 providers ask for relief without sacrificing quality.

    Talk to any working parent about their preschool-age kids, and chances are good you'll soon hear a horror story about how hard it was to find the right day care.

    According to simple economics, the market should provide what buyers want, but in Pinellas County, the reverse seems to be happening.

    The county actually has suffered a net loss of 60 family day-care homes -- the kind in private houses -- in a one-year period, January 2000 to January 2001.

    There are several possible explanations, but some of Pinellas County's home day-care providers point to the county's strict regulations that limit the number of children they can take into their houses. The county's rules for family day-care homes are the strictest in the state, and some say that limits their income and makes it harder to stay in business.

    "They're losing their quality providers that really want to do this," said Marie Addison of Seminole, president of the Pinellas Providers Home Child Care Association.

    In a small revolt, about 10 family day-care providers went to the County Commission last week to urge a loosening of the rules. The situation already is under study by the local board that sets these policies.

    "It's hurting us," said Janet Hartman, who cares for five children in her St. Petersburg home.

    This storm is brewing in Pinellas, but it is an issue that affects the entire state. Everywhere there is tension between a child-care facility's need to break even and its responsibility to keep children safe and well-attended.

    The question is where to draw the line.

    Pinellas draws it more sharply than the other counties in Florida. Most counties follow a state law that sets general limits on the number of children allowed in a homes. Some counties, such as Pinellas, have stricter limits. But officials in each of those counties, when contacted by the Times, said their rules are not quite as limiting as those in Pinellas.

    In Pinellas, family day-care homes can take in no more than five children, and no more than three can be under age 2.

    The state law, followed in most of Florida including Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, allows:

    Up to 10 children, as long as no more than five are preschool age, and no more than two are under 1 year old.

    Or up to six preschool age children, with no more than three under age 1.

    Or up to four children under age 1.

    In certain cases, state law allows family day-care homes with two caregivers to have more children.

    Pinellas' strict standards are "a good thing for children," says Gail Robertson, executive director of the Pinellas County License Board for Children's Centers and Family Day Care Homes. "Those early years are so critical."

    Brain research shows children need attention from adults -- lap time, reading, conversation -- to develop properly. Limiting the number of children in a home helps make sure children get the attention they need, Robertson said.

    But you can't have quality day care if people can't afford to provide it. Addison said she knows of people who operate family day-care homes and also work at Burger King or Home Depot to make ends meet otherwise. She worries that someone who works late and wakes up early to take their first child in at 6 a.m. will be too tired to provide proper care.

    "I think that we're jeopardizing children more by having a tired, disgruntled caregiver," she said.

    Addison said that she makes out fine financially when she has five children in her home, but the problem comes when one child leaves and she has a vacancy for a few weeks.

    "If you lose one child for a month, that's $500. That's most people's house payment."

    Hartman said, "I love what I do. . . . I know what I do every day makes a difference." But she, too, said that there is not much margin for error financially.

    She cares for five children in a room of her house, a renovated garage where her husband has painted the walls with colorful murals of Winnie the Pooh, Cookie Monster and other characters. She has a computer, a television, books and developmentally appropriate toys for the children.

    She takes in a total of $530 a week. She buys $120 to $160 worth of groceries per week for breakfast, lunch and snacks. A government food program reimburses $70 to $90 of that. She buys $400 worth of liability insurance each year and spends more than that on toys and books. Her electric bill is "easily $300 a month," because the temperature cannot drop too low or rise too high when the children are there.

    "When you boil it all down, we make basically the minimum wage," she said.

    After the County Commission meeting last week, new Commissioner Ken Welch -- who was just appointed to the License Board -- said, "I'm willing to listen to both sides of the story, but going into the discussion, my highest priority is the safety of the children."

    Commissioner Karen Seel, who until recently served on the License Board, agrees.

    "The safety and the well-being of the child should always come first," she said. "We may be somewhat stricter, but I think we're doing that with quality in mind."

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