The law is a fix advocates and providers called for soon after the state legislature in 2019 approved a bill called "Nathan's Law" (Getty Images).
Home-based child care providers are permitted to exempt up to two children related to them from being counted toward their maximum capacity under a new law that went into effect this month.
That means providers like Debbie George, who has operated a daycare in Hallsville for nearly 36 years, won’t have to leave two slots unfilled for afternoons or school breaks when her 10 and 7-year old grandchildren spend the day.
“In order for them to be here on no-school days, I had to let two families go, because I obviously wasn’t going to let my grandchildren go,” said George, later adding: “It was a huge money loss for me. And it was very hurtful to my families.”
It’s a fix advocates and providers called for soon after the state legislature in 2019 approved a bill called “Nathan’s Law.”
The bill was named after Nathan Blecha, a 3-month old who died in 2007 after suffocating at an unlicensed Jefferson County day care provider who was caring for 10 children — four of which were her own grandkids, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch previously reported. It aimed to put limits on the number of related children that in-home daycares could oversee.
But in doing so, the law accidentally prevented licensed home-based providers from exempting their own relatives.
That meant providers had to stop serving families in order to continue to care for their own, leading to frustration on the part of both providers and families they cared for.
“It was heartbreaking, because that was never what any of us advocates ever talked about. We never intended for that to happen,” said Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri. “So the fact that at least it’s been course-corrected is a good thing, because now hopefully they can have those additional slots to have those children they had before.”
Under the new law, sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, licensed home-based providers may care for two children five years and older who are related in the third-degree, such as a great-grandchild, and not have to count them toward the maximum limit they are licensed for. The law, which contained an emergency clause, went into effect upon receiving Gov. Mike Parson’s signature.
Nathan’s Law took over a decade to pass, with the bill hitting bumps along the way. Prior to its passage in 2019, unlicensed, home-based providers were permitted to care for four children — with no limits on the number of related children they oversaw.
The law capped the overall number of children unlicensed providers could care for at six, while exempting children living in the provider’s home who were eligible to enroll in kindergarten, elementary or high school. A maximum of three children younger than 2 years old were allowed to be cared for.
While the 2019 law wasn’t intended to impact licensed providers, they were caught in the mix. The state previously granted variances to providers on a case-by-case basis.
Some providers began to consider dropping their state-issued license, arguing that they could still care for six children and exempt their own if they were unlicensed, Phillips said.
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Casey Hanson, director of outreach and engagement for Kids Win Missouri, a coalition of organizations that advocate for child well-being, said the change enacted this year will hopefully eliminate barriers to licensure.
“We can continue to make changes that are in the best interest of kids, while also recognizing you have to cut down some barriers for providers to want to be licensed as well,” Hanson said, later adding: “One in three families in Missouri live in a childcare desert. And so things like this that help make sure that there’s more spots for kids, I mean, I think that’s a win.”
George said she doesn’t view the law that went into effect this month as a complete fix and would like to see a cap put on when providers can stop counting older related children altogether. But she said the law at least gives her peace of mind knowing she has those two slots available if she needs them in the future.
George, who is licensed to care for 10 children, has four spaces available currently that she’s chosen not to fill.
“I don’t have to have that income now. But nobody knows what tomorrow brings,” George said, later adding: “If something were to happen and my husband couldn’t work… I have the ability to go back to keeping 10 if I need to. I am very thankful for that.”
But for many providers who have weathered the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, a return of two slots may not be enough to stabilize their business long-term, Phillips said. Hundreds of providers shut their doors during the pandemic, at least temporarily, and many struggled to receive reimbursements from the state for providing subsidized care, The Independent previously reported.
“They’re small business owners, and they have tight margins. And many of them, we’ve been assisting to get the state grants and they aren’t even taking salaries for themselves,” Phillips said of providers.
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George says she constantly hears from parents searching for child care who are willing to drive 30 miles to find quality care when options are lacking where they live.
“My phone rings continually of families searching for all ages, but especially infant care,” George said. “I mean, we live in a scary state that doesn’t have enough infant care.”
Hanson said major overhauls, like rewriting child care regulations that haven’t been touched for years and ensuring federal relief funds, like from the American Rescue Plan Act, are reaching providers to bolster the child care workforce are necessary.
“And then start to be more forward thinking about what investments we need long-term to really strengthen the supply of childcare,” Hanson said.
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