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Violations in day care are rampant across Utah

Criminal background checks required for day-care workers weren't made for months. Some 35 toddlers were found under the care of one day-care teacher, but the state didn't revoke the center's license.

A state audit released Tuesday blasted the Office of Licensing for failing to make child-care centers fix their problems and for duplicating services already being undertaken by other state and county agencies.The problems existed in other agencies licensed by the office, including those in Youth Corrections, the Division of Mental Health and the Division of Substance Abuse.

But the most frequent problems arose in child-care facilities, where violators continued to operate despite violations. Ignoring "Category One" violations pose a threat to the safety and health of children and place them in serious jeopardy, child advocates say.

"These are health and safety issues," said Christine Frazier, vice president-elect of the Salt Lake Association for the Education of Young Children. "No wonder child care in Utah is in the state it's in."

A "significant" number of providers do not adhere to state licensing rules, auditors said. In an in-depth review of 100 randomly selected centers, 33 percent failed to correct Category One violations, like child-to-teacher ratios and failing to immunize staff.

One center was allowed to operate for a year before it obtained fire and safety clearances. Another center had its license renewed despite the fact it did not fence its playground near a busy street as officials had repeatedly asked.

The Office of Licensing operates within the Department of Human Services, though the state shifted the responsibilities for child-care licensing to the Department of Health in July.

Director of the Health Department's Bureau of Licensing, Debra Wynkoop-Green, says it's a different and more stringent system now.

The 27 investigators have been retrained. There are more unannounced visits, and enforcement is mandated. Under the Health Department's watch, violators must write a plan of action to fix the problem. If the problem isn't fixed by the next visit, the license is revoked.

Since July, one center has closed voluntarily after the Health Department found multiple violations. Two more centers have conditional licenses and are in the midst of fixing their violations.

Much work remains, however, to bring all of the state's 2,700 in-home providers and day-care centers in line with licensing standards. Wynkoop-Green said the average day-care center in Utah has 20 licensing deficiencies, and the average in-home provider has eight.

The caseworkers are also burdened with heavy workloads, like 100 day-care centers per caseworker, 40 more than the national average.

Doug West, deputy director of Human Services, said the Health Department "inherited" the most difficult licensing area with child care.

But Human Services must still look at the remaining licensing areas. West said that may include legislation to clarify the state code, which auditors blamed for not clearly defining the Office of Licensing's purpose.

West told the legislative audit subcommittee that the department has been looking at the licensing problems for about a year and a new licensing director was hired four months ago.