Fifteen years ago, Pamela Collins gave birth to twin boys. Soon after, a new career as a day care provider fell in her lap when she decided to leave her job as a social worker and care for her hairdresser's son. More children soon flocked to her day care.
Licensed by the state to watch up to six children in her Mount Horeb home, Collins joins some 5,400 other in-home and group providers across Wisconsin in adapting to new regulations that have rolled out of the Capitol since massive fraud was uncovered earlier this year in the state's $400 million-a-year child care subsidy program, Wisconsin Shares. In addition to the fraud, some providers were found to have criminal records, and sex offenders were discovered living in the homes of some in-home providers.
Given these realities, more new laws could be on the way. The new requirements affect all state licensed providers including those who, like Collins, do not care for children whose parents receive Wisconsin Shares.
Collins has already had to reach deeper into her pockets to pay for vehicle alarms and safety features in her backyard - new requirements under state law - and, like others, could be facing tough professional sanctions if she, her family or anyone in her employment runs afoul of the law.
"I have a perfect record," says Collins, now the mother of three. "A few bad apples have made it tougher on the rest of us."
Her feelings are echoed by others in the child care industry, although many are reluctant to voice it publicly. Several licensed child care providers contacted for this article declined to comment publicly on the problems with Wisconsin Shares and legislation working its way through the state Assembly and Senate that would, if approved, hold child care providers accountable not only for their own criminal actions, but the actions of their employees and anyone living in their home age 12 or older.
Under the bill, providers also would lose their state licenses and Wisconsin Shares funding as soon as criminal charges - including battery, dangerous use of a weapon or a sexual crime against a child - surfaced against them, an employee or anyone living in an in-home center age 12 and older. The bill does not require the state to reinstate a provider's license or reimburse providers for Wisconsin Shares funds if they are found not guilty.
The bill also would require providers to conduct background checks on their employees and everyone living in their home every year. Providers would be checked quarterly. Currently, these individuals are checked every four years, although state law requires providers to inform the state within 24 hours if they have been involved in an accident or a crime.
The intent is to protect children and taxpayer dollars while allowing low-income parents to work by assisting them with their child care costs.
"It is hard to balance between the very good providers out there, while at the same time trying to get at the people who should be in prison or at the very least should not be watching a child," says Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, author of the Assembly bill.
The bills are slated for a vote Tuesday before the Joint Finance Committee. It is Grigsby's intent to get the bills passed and on the floor for a vote by both houses before the fall session ends Thursday.
Grigsby says she can identify with what she calls the headache and heartburn such actions are having on quality providers. Providers, she says, are concerned that the legislation holds them responsible for the actions of their employees, even while off-duty, and that the bad decisions of teenagers living in their home could result in the loss of parents' child care licenses. Some providers also feel the bills peg them as guilty until proven guilty because their license is immediately revoked upon being charged with a crime.
"Some of the things we are asking for cost more money and are more of a burden, but I would rather have a headache as a provider than know some children are being exploited," says Grigsby. "When you find registered sex offenders living in the homes of child care providers, something has to be done. That is outrageous."
The Wisconsin Shares program was founded in 1987 as part of Wisconsin's overhaul of its welfare system. It is designed to help low-income parents, many of whom are not on welfare, land and keep jobs. The child care assistance flows directly from the state to licensed providers, not to the parents.
Wisconsin Shares was enormously popular over the years, so much so that as federal funding stayed flat, the state kicked in more and more money to close the ever-widening funding gap.
The program came under scrutiny after an ongoing Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation and subsequent state audit discovered widespread fraud, especially in Milwaukee County, and a tendency for program administrators to rubber-stamp suspect information submitted by providers.
Bob Allen, a spokesperson with AFSCME Wisconsin, which now includes 1,500 in-home day care providers as members of AFSCME/Child Care Providers Together, says the union has generally supported efforts to address problems revealed in the newspaper's investigation and state audit. But since testifying in favor of Grigsby's bill, the union has raised concerns over newly proposed amendments that immediately pull the licenses of providers for a variety of charges.
"These amendments cast a very wide net on some nonviolent offenses that do not relate to the well-being of children," says Allen, citing retail theft, cable theft and bootlegging videos as examples.
Allen says the union is looking for "remedies" to immediate revocation.
As of last week, 98 providers had their licenses suspended as a result of the state's own investigation into the program. Of those, 52 had filed paperwork to appeal the suspensions with the Division of Hearings and Appeals. Two providers in Dane County had their licenses suspended, but neither has appealed the state's decision.
Dave Edie, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' early education policy analyst, says that while the group has not taken an official stance on the bill, the organization does agree with its intent, which is to try to prevent people who have committed serious crimes from caring for children or from being in a home where children are present.
Edie, however, says the Legislature should not overreact in a time of crisis. "They need to be cautious because sometimes there are unintended consequences of legislation," he says. "They just need to be careful."
While some say lawmakers are going too far, Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine, says the state isn't going far enough. He says parents, in addition to providers, need to be held accountable when they defraud the system.
"To their credit, I was very optimistic," says Vos of his Democratic colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee. "But as they checked with the child care providers back in Madison, they have whittled it down to almost nothing."
Vos says he put forth amendments that would punish parents who are found to be collaborating with their providers to defraud the system. Currently, subsidized funds are not withheld for someone's child until a hearing is held at the county level. This prompts some parents, Vos says, to repeatedly miss or postpone the hearing date. Vos wants parents to be required to attend the hearing within 30 days.
"I want to root out all the bad apples," Vos says. "That's why I think only going after the providers is not enough."
For Tina Williams, a licensed in-home provider in Mount Horeb who has three children of her own, ages 16, 12 and 9, the bills sound tough enough. The fact that the missteps of her two eldest could cause her to lose her license is reason enough for concern.
"Teenagers do make bad choices once in a while," Williams says. "I don't think that should impact a family's financial situation."
Collins, whose children are now 15 and 11, says she told her children if they get in trouble with the law, their college tuition is gone.
Both women agree that recently passed regulations - including the need to install fenced-in play areas, and alarms in their personal vehicles to prevent children from being left unnoticed - are taking a financial toll on their businesses.
"We feel the repercussions from those who have taken advantage of the system," Williams says. "Financially, it is a strain. But I'll do what I need to because the children's safety is my priority."