Ensuring the safety of children in day care is a critical priority, but that process can be contentious, some providers say state regulators are nitpicky tattlers who are driving people out of business.
In response, state officials say those crying about over-regulation of the industry represent just a handful of providers who will never happily comply with the rules.
The tension has prompted two lengthy discussions among a committee of state lawmakers and a request by four legislators for an audit to probe, among other things, the enforcements and regulations in the state's child care licensing system.
In a Tuesday meeting of the legislature's Administrative Rules Committee, Dr. Scott Williams, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, outlined steps the agency is taking to minimize animosity between state inspectors and some providers.
Among the proposed changes are the elimination of unannounced visits for inspections of providers and contracting with an independent administrative law judge to review appeals of violations.
Noting a recent department pilot study showed scheduled visits result in as many, if not more, instances of violations as surprise visits do, Williams said the practice of spot inspections will be discontinued because it is viewed as disruptive.
"It is a source of tension that is not worth all the problems it is creating," he said.
Instead, inspectors will schedule their visits. If any problems are noted, the department will then return unannounced within several weeks to verify corrective action has been taken.
While he is unsure of the cost, Williams said the department plans to contract with an independent administrative law judge to hear appeals, which he says have been the subject of complaints because those judges also work for the health department.
"It creates an inherent perception of bias because we use our own employees," he said.
The department also will cease to investigate anonymous complaints, which some providers say allow former disgruntled employees or parents with high bills to lodge retaliatory allegations with no substance.
If the matter involves criminal issues, Williams said the complaint will be referred to the state Division of Child and Family Services or local law enforcement. Otherwise, Williams said, the complaint will simply be logged for review during the next inspection.
In cases in which complainants reveal their identity to the department but want their names shielded from the provider, that wish will be honored, Williams said. The department then will try to verify the complaint through independent evidence.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-Taylors- ville, is one of the four lawmakers who requested the audit after providers lodged complaints about overzealous health department employees niggling over mindless details.
"These providers are doing what they love to do — taking care of children," he said. "But some of your people are making them feel like they are the bad guy."
Several providers representing commercial day care centers said it is unfair they are subject to so many rules and requirements, while other operators — such as small home operations or those who run programs in schools or Headstart — are not.
"These programs compete with us viciously," said Johnny Anderson of the Utah Private Child Care Association. "We are regulated heavily and our most fierce competition is not regulated at all."
Curriculum-based day care systems have been outside of state regulatory action since 1997. And in 1999, lawmakers also created an exemption for certain home-based day care providers.
That bothered House Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, who said if the state is truly concerned about the safety of all children, the exemptions are troublesome.
"Maybe that is an inconsistency that the Legislature needs to look at," he said.