Daycare Dilemma: How parents navigate unlicensed and licensed child care systems across the country

More than 3.6 million children across the country are left without access to child care services
Parents advise other families to check licensing and insurance information of home daycares. Reporter Rachel DePompa and Photojournalist Daniel Heffner.
Published: Feb. 27, 2023 at 1:11 PM EST
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(InvestigateTV) - The Harrings were looking for the right fit to take care of their 18-month-old, Luke Harring, a boy his mom describes as “sweet and loving.”

But finding the right child care option for Luke required a lot of shopping around and finding affordable options for the family.

For Maryanne and David Harring, it was important to find flexible child care options.

Because of hybrid work schedules, the Harrings were searching for a child care option that would fit both work schedules, but they were running up against what many families face: high cost.

“Just on a weekly basis averaging between $210 and $250 a week, which is definitely a heavy burden on a family with a tight budget,” David said.

With the rise of inflation, financial stress, and a decline in child care workers, thousands of families across the U.S. are struggling to find the right child care for their children.

More than $10,000 is the average families pay for child care in the U.S., according to ChildCare Aware of America.

“I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, that’s just not in the cards for us, and that’s okay,” Maryanne said.

After searching, they opted to meet a woman who was recommended through a family friend who was already providing in-home daycare services to the Harrings’ neighbor.

At an in-home daycare, they thought Luke would be able to get more attention from the caregiver because they often provide care for a small group of children.

The Harrings met with the caregiver to see if she’d be a good fit to meet the needs of their family.

“We met her in her home. We met her family,” Maryanne said.

When she asked the caregiver about her business, Maryanne said she responded with “I’m completely legit.”

The Harrings didn’t ask further questions because she was recommended by a family friend.

“We just didn’t see any red flags at the time, otherwise we would have never taken our child there.”

‘We were in shock’

On February 8, 2022, the Harrings never expected their lives to change.

After dropping off Luke like every other day, Maryanne went to work and received a call from the caregiver.

“I got a call at 9:24 a.m. that said, ‘You need to come out or you need to know that Luke has been injured,’” Maryanne said. “And I said ‘Oh is he okay? Like what happened?’”

According to Maryanne, the caregiver explained that Luke and another child were playing next to the oven while she was baking muffins. She went to open the oven door, and Luke fell right beside her, burning his hands on the oven door.

Maryanne rushed to pick up Luke from the in-home day care, and she knew something wasn’t right.

“And I got there, honestly, it was a horrific scene,” Maryanne said. “I mean, he was screaming bloody murder. I mean to the point where he was uncontrollably breathing.”

Other kids were also crying, she said. The caregiver, Maryanne said, was caring for more children than she had originally told the Harrings she would.

The caregiver suggested taking Luke to the emergency room but said that the hospital wouldn’t be able to do anything for him.

At this point, Luke’s hands were bright red and huge blisters would soon form.

Maryanne and David Harring drove almost 60 miles to get their 18-month-old son to the closest...
Maryanne and David Harring drove almost 60 miles to get their 18-month-old son to the closest burn center after he suffered third, second, and first degree burns inside a in-home day care.(InvestigateTV)

The Harrings in a panic drove down to the closest hospital in their area and were redirected to a specialized burn center just an hour away.

Maryanne said the ride was simply a blur.

“We were in shock. We had no idea how to process everything at the time, so much happened,” Maryanne said.

For the next 18 days, the family spent their days in the hospital, taking care of their young son.

Luke underwent five surgeries to repair the injuries his hands suffered. He sustained first, second, and third-degree burns. His left hand sustained the most damage, which was reconstructed because he lost all sensation.

Luke spent more than two weeks at the hospital while doctors reconstructed the nerves on his...
Luke spent more than two weeks at the hospital while doctors reconstructed the nerves on his hands after an incident at an in-home daycare. Luke's parents say they took 19 inches of skin from his groin area to reconstruct his hands.(David Harring)

“We still have medical bills coming in,” Maryanne said.

During Harrings’ time at the hospital, Maryanne reached out to the caregiver to get her licensing and insurance.

Maryanne said the caregiver said, “Oh, it’s not a legit business, I don’t have liability insurance.”

The Harrings found out that the provider was not licensed by the state. The caregiver also didn’t have any liability insurance nor homeowners’ insurance.

In the state of Virginia, where they live, a provider caring for a certain number of children should be licensed with the proper amount of training and should be inspected by the Department of Education.

But because her in-home day care wasn’t licensed, she could only care for four kids or fewer, not counting her own children. Maryanne remembers on February 8, the caregiver was caring for more than six children at the time.

Incidents and regulations inside daycares

The Administration for Children & Families and the Office of Child Care help support low-income working families by providing access to child to information parents need to search for child care.

Each state has an agency that issues child care licenses. Often, it is the department of education for that state.

Those agencies are ultimately responsible for completing inspections and creating regulations that facilities should follow to guarantee children are in safe environments.

Although states have different licensing requirements, in many states, providers must complete an application for a child care license, complete a background check by the state, and receive an inspection to prove they meet the standards required by the state.

For example, Florida law requires that anyone who is providing child care services in their home for more than one unrelated family must be registered or licensed through the Department of Children and Families. InvestigateTV found incidents across the country where children were injured at an in-home child care.

In Indiana, a woman who operated an in-home day care was charged with causing forced head trauma to an 11-month-old girl. The little girl died after being dropped on concrete.

In another incident, an Illinois family hired a home-daycare provider to take care of their infant. The child suffocated to death after being placed on a couch cushion covered with a blanket to nap.

Many of these cases have resulted in lawsuits.

Parents struggle to find space in child care facilities

According to data from the U.S. Census in April and May of 2022, 19% of families who used child care said they were unable to send their children several times because of the cost, concerns over safety or their caregivers just weren’t available.

Those same concerns have been raised by U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

She’s trying to get Congress to pass a bi-partisan bill that would help families with child care costs.

“If we want our families to have safe spaces for their children to go to, we need to make sure we have affordable, accessible child care,” Ernst said.

The Child care DESERTS Act would allow small businesses to provide child care services to their employees by having access to loan programs through the Small Business Administration.

“I hear from parents that they really can’t find anywhere to place their child if they go to work or the cost is pretty exorbitant,” Ernst said.

But finding spots for all those children is still a battle.

Data from ChildCare Aware of America, a nonprofit, found that 12.3 million children across the U.S. needed child care services as of 2021, but there were only 8.7 million openings for child care in licensed centers and in-home daycares.

Those numbers left an estimated 3.6 million children with no services in 2021.

When it comes to cost, the average that families are paying varies drastically state-to-state.

D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Washington and Connecticut are the five places with the highest average cost for child care for an infant in a family child care center for 2021.

Those averages go from $14,000 to $19,000 a year.

In South Dakota, child care services on average are less than $5,500 a year, which is the lowest average cost among all states for 2021.

Experts: Finding services

Mindy Bennett is the deputy chief of membership and programs for ChildCare Aware of America.

The nonprofit organization specializes in providing child care resources and connecting families with trusted providers across the country.

“Families are looking for care that meets their unique needs and they are challenged with the cost of care,” Bennett said. “They have challenges with non-traditional hours and finding child care in the evenings and on the weekends. It’s a big struggle.”

But she reminds families that they are not alone and that there is local financial support.

“There are child care subsidy dollars that families may qualify for. There’s Head Start and Early Head Start that families might qualify for,” Bennett said. “And then our members also have a list of programs that do sliding fee scales.”

Even though cost is at the forefront of concerns families have, safety is another.

When searching for either a facility daycare or a family in-home daycare, Bennet said parents need to make sure that they are asking the right questions, so they can feel good about their decision.

“There are family child care homes out there that are not licensed that are doing a good job,” Benett said. “And there are family child care homes out there that are licensed that aren’t doing a good job. That’s why we’re here to help you navigate the system.”

Child care experts InvestigateTV spoke with said before a parent sends their child to a facility or to a family home day care parents should not only ask logistical questions but also do some research before visiting a facility.

Bennett said families should do the following:

  • Use your senses when scouting for a place
  • Tour the home or facility
  • Pay for a background check if you can
  • Search provider license and inspection reports

Baby Luke is doing better a year after the incident. He can use his hands without any pain, but the Harrings want to help other families understand what questions to ask and precautions to take when shopping around to avoid a child care dilemma.