Our review of the Department of Social Services' (department) oversight of licensed child care facilities found that the department:
The Department of Social Services (department), through the child care program in its community care licensing division, is responsible for monitoring licensed child care facilities—child care centers (centers) and family child care homes (homes)—and investigating complaints against those facilities. However, the department has struggled to make required visits to the facilities and carry out its other monitoring responsibilities. For example, the department is not on track to meet its statutory requirement to visit each facility at least once every five years, even though the requirement is among the least frequent in the nation. Further, although it is tracking other statutory visit requirements, the data it uses to do so have various problems, and thus the department's assessment of its progress in meeting the requirements may not be accurate.
The department points to reduced resources in recent years stemming from the State's budget shortfall as the reason for its inability to fulfill all of its monitoring responsibilities. Thus, the department has had to prioritize among the various oversight activities it conducts as part of its licensing programs, including its child care program, to focus on those that provide the most direct protections, such as investigating complaints against child care facilities. At the same time, it acknowledged that other important activities have been delayed or eliminated.
In the spring of 2005, the department began a three-phase effort to rebuild its oversight activities for its licensing programs. As of March 2006, the department was in the initial phase, which focuses on rebuilding the "foundation" of its monitoring program through activities such as hiring staff and developing management data. The subsequent phases, which aim to increase monitoring activities and analyze information that is expected to result from the increased level of monitoring, are dependent on proposed funding. Nevertheless, a question for the State's decision makers to consider is whether the level of monitoring required by statute, toward which the department is working with its rebuilding effort, is sufficient.
As the department rebuilds its child care oversight function, it is also important for it to evaluate which of its existing oversight processes are working well and which require improvement. The department stated that it considers conducting and completing complaint investigations in a timely manner to be one of its highest priorities. Our review found that the department has established a process for addressing complaints. Our testing of a sample of complaints at four regional offices indicated that the department usually conducted complaint visits within established deadlines but did not always complete the investigations within deadlines. In addition, the department could have taken additional action to resolve some of the complaint allegations we reviewed that it found to be inconclusive.
Further, the department did not always determine whether child care facilities corrected the deficiencies it identified during its visits to facilities, although our review indicated that the department was more effective in following up on deficiencies noted during complaint visits than it was for those identified during its routine periodic inspections. Finally, we noted various instances in which the department concluded that facilities had taken corrective action, but the agreed-upon actions were not verifiable or measurable.
The department appropriately monitored the activities of the six counties with which it contracts to license and monitor homes within their boundaries. However, it has yet to develop sufficient automated management information that will allow it to effectively monitor the regional offices of its child care program, which carry out most of the department's oversight of licensed child care facilities. As a result, the department has limited assurance that these regional offices are consistently complying with established procedures. In addition, the department has established a process to inform parents of certain problems it identifies during its visits to facilities. However, although it stated that it has begun the necessary planning to make nonconfidential information regarding its monitoring visits more readily available to the public by placing it on its Web site, implementation will be dependent on funding.
The department employs a progressive system of enforcement through the regional offices of its child care program and its legal division to address health and safety violations by child care facilities. The enforcement measures include assessing civil penalties for violations of state laws and regulations, holding noncompliance conferences with licensees after unsuccessfully attempting to gain compliance, and taking legal action, if necessary.
However, our review revealed that the department needs to improve its enforcement activities. In particular, we found that the department could increase its use of civil penalties as a response to health and safety violations by facilities. For example, we found that the department assessed civil penalties in a more limited manner for homes than it did for centers because regulations for homes establish civil penalties only for specific violations. In addition, we found several instances at four regional offices in which the department did not follow its guidance regarding the use of noncompliance conferences. Specifically, we noted instances in which the department did not conduct the conferences promptly enough, considering the severity of the health and safety violations. For example, the department did not require a licensee to attend a noncompliance conference until nearly five months after an incident in which a child was left unattended in the back of a car for two hours.
Although our review of selected legal cases found that the department appropriately prioritized the cases and generally ensured that its legal division processed the cases within expected time frames, the regional offices did not always adequately enforce legal actions against licensed child care facilities. For example, we found that for the cases we reviewed, regional offices often did not make visits as required after the facilities' licenses were revoked to ensure that the facilities were no longer operating.
To ensure that the department continues to make monitoring visits, including periodic inspections and complaint visits, and carries out its other required responsibilities for child care facilities, the department should:
To improve its enforcement actions in order to effectively address health and safety violations by child care facilities, the department should:
The department agreed with our recommendations and stated that it welcomed the audit results as important contributions to its enforcement policies that will help increase protections for children throughout the State.