youngstar website screenshot

The state Dept. of Children and Families' YoungStar program tracks the quality of child care for Wisconsin children.

The state is now posting online the amounts of fines levied against child care centers and the reasons for the fines.

The move, long sought by consumer advocates, means all inspection information related to the state's oversight of child care centers is available in an easily accessible way on the Internet.

"It is fantastic that Wisconsin has taken this step," said Grace Reef, head of public policy and evaluation for Child Care Aware of America, a national association in Arlington, Va., that tracks state laws governing child care centers.

The group had criticized Wisconsin over the years for not making the information available online. The incomplete reporting by the state prompted the State Journal to begin publishing the information through an open records request beginning annually in 2003.

The state's website is at dcf.wisconsin.gov/youngstar.

Thirty-one states now post child care inspection reports online, Reef said. "We're still not where we should be."

Wisconsin's journey to full transparency has been a slow one. As recently as 2007, a parent who wanted to view an inspection report had to visit one of five regional licensing offices or pay 15 cents a page for mailed copies.

In 2008, the state began posting some limited information online. A parent could learn whether or not a center had been fined, but not the amount of the fine or an explanation of the problem. A phone call to a licensing office was needed for that.

By last year at this time, the state was posting complete inspection reports, but still not the amounts of fines or the reasons.

"It's really important that parents, as consumers of child care, have all the information they need to make an informed choice among child care settings," Reef said. "We think it's critical to post that information online."

A child care union leader also applauded the move. Anneliese Sheahan, a child care provider in Mosinee and president of a union that represents family child care providers in 71 Wisconsin counties, said it was unfair to child care providers not to include the size of a fine online because parents had no way to evaluate the seriousness of an infraction.

"Overall, I believe posting (the amount) online is a positive thing, because there's a big difference between someone getting fined $100 and $1,000," she said.

Her only reservation, she said, is that fines get posted before a center's appeals process has concluded. Fines are sometimes reduced or eliminated on appeal, yet a center's reputation may already have been damaged, she said.

One caveat on the state's website: Fines are listed only for the two most-recent years. After that, the information falls away but will be available upon request.

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