Nearly two dozen advocacy groups are calling for improvements to the Texas child care system in the wake of an American-Statesman investigation that found dangerous conditions in many daycares across the state.
The groups have sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, state legislators and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, asking them to, among other things: increase the number of caregivers required to look after children at licensed daycares; require the state to collect data on the connection between caregiver-to-child ratios and unsafe daycare environments; and improve access to quality daycare.
“The advocacy world for children and providers has been working for years to improve standards,” said Kim Kofron, executive director for the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children. “It’s time we get something done.”
The letter was signed by 23 child welfare advocacy groups including Texans Care for Children, Children’s Defense Fund and United Way for Greater Austin.
The Statesman this month published “Unwatched,” a three-day, 12-part investigative series that found that nearly 90 children had died of abuse and neglect suffered in child cares since 2007, while another 450 were sexually abused. Though thousands of children have been injured, lax oversight has allowed hundreds of daycares with scores of violations to continue operating without serious consequences.
The Statesman investigation found that child care operators receive paltry fines for violations, averaging about $100, and generally are not fined for the most serious violations, such as hitting or pinching children.
“Unwatched” also pointed out that even though nearly half of the abuse or neglect deaths happened in so-called illegal child cares — daycares that operate without licenses — the state last year did away with a unit tasked specifically with finding them. After the newspaper inquired about the move, the Health and Human Services Commission asked state legislators to give them money in the upcoming session to restore the unit.
In their letter to officials, the advocates asked the state to put more money into the state’s child care division, including raising wages for those employees. In 2017, the Texas Legislature poured funds into the Child Protective Services system, hiking salaries to help retain workers and tamp down long-standing problems with turnover. Since then, the agency has seen fewer people leaving the job.
The state should consider doing the same for state child care workers, especially those responsible for licensing, to ensure consistent regulation and oversight of childcare providers, the letter states.
Cathy McHorse, early childhood education director at United Way for Greater Austin, said she wants to see the Legislature focus on bringing better quality to child cares. In their letter, the groups ask the state to require all day cares that receive state subsidies to participate in a quality rating system designed to ensure kids are safe and getting a good education. Right now, she said, even poor-quality child cares can receive subsidies.
“Why would we be OK in investing public dollars in things that are subpar?” McHorse said.
Advocates have known for decades about problems in child cares, said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children. But, after the Statesman series introduced a bigger audience to those dangers, advocates are hopeful that the Legislature will make the issue a priority.
“What’s important is that series has raised awareness in state leaders and community leaders who were shocked by the extent of the safety issues,” she said.
Abbott told the Statesman through a spokesperson earlier this year that he would not tolerate abuse and neglect of children and that he would work to ensure they are protected.
“We appreciate the governor has announced that child care safety is a priority for him,” Rubin said. “We all look forward to working with him and Texas leaders to improve the safety and quality in child care next session.”
Some legislators have already taken steps to improve child care safety. Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, has filed a bill requiring all day care centers to have cameras. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has said he wants to ensure the illegal day care unit is reinstated and see more child care enforcement.