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The phrase “for the children” has entered the realm of parody in our popular culture. We smile knowingly when in films and TV comedies a sleazy scamster uses the “for the children” plea to manipulate emotions and disguise self-interest. Nevertheless, cynical comedy aside, we all also know on some deep level that this comedic trope only works because the welfare of children is really, truly paramount – so much so that our concern becomes easy to exploit.

The Missouri legislature, however, has had a different take. Here, for the past few years at least, “for the children” has meant doing your bit to protect fetal life, living children be dammed. The last chair of the House Standing Committee on Children and Families, Rep. Cynthia Davis, was up-front about her anti-abortion priorities. Fortunately, the term-limited Davis is now history, and it’s possible that the new committee leadership may be willing to consider engaging  with the needs of Missouri’s real, fully-developed children.

And not a moment too soon. As a recent series of reports in the St. Louis Post Dispatch make clear, Missouri’s under-regulated child daycare system could use some TLC from the committee. The series, which explores the issues surrounding the accidental deaths of more than 40 children in unlicensed daycare settings in Missouri over a relatively short span of time, exposes a lax system with little accountability. Sadly, past efforts to correct these failings have been opposed by conservatives who, while children are dying, argue that efforts to regulate providers are too intrusive.

At least partly in response to the Post Dispatch reports, the House Standing Children and Families Committee has scheduled hearings to guide corrective actions. If the hearing that took place in Kansas City recently is indicative, according to committee member Rep. Jeanette Mott-Oxford (D-59), there may be some hope for improvement.

Given the clear evidence of the need to update daycare regulations, two bills that have failed several times in the past, known popularly as Nathan’s Law and Sam Pratt’s Law, might possibly make it through the legislature. Among other provisions, these bills would address the ratio of children to caregivers, and permit the State to investigate and shut-down unlicensed daycare providers who are facing criminal charges.

Senator Scott Rupp (R-2) has combined the two into one bill, SB 339. When it comes to child care at least, Rupp seems to march to a different drummer than his GOP primary opponent, Cynthia Davis, who was instrumental in obstructing passage of Sam Pratt’s law, named for a child who died while in daycare. Davis is notorious for her statement that it was “a ‘souvenir’ bill designed to soothe his grieving family.” In contrast, Rupp states that:

I want Missouri parents to be certain that when they go to work or attend to personal business, their children are in the best hands possible.

Welcome as these changes might be, they would, however, only begin to scratch the surface of Missouri’s child care needs. As Mott-Oxford reports, the evidence is clear that ensuring quality child care will require more than just tightening standards for daycare providers.

Prior to the Kansas City hearing, Mott-Oxford and her committee colleagues boarded the Operation BreakthroughCity You Never See” bus tour. Operation Breakthrough is a non-profit Early Head Start/Head Start organization that has been helping meet the child care needs of low-income, working Kansas Citians since 1971. The bus tour provides an educational opportunity that enables participants to learn about the lives of families in areas of the city where “children stand in line for food, where working parents desperate for shelter break into abandoned buildings, where Missouri babies born into poverty struggle to survive.”

As you might imagine, the stories our legislators heard on the bus tour offered powerful testimony to the fact that Missouri not only needs to make child care safer, but must also insure that quality day care, tailored to meet the developmental needs of its clients, is more widely accessible.  Mott-Oxford suggests four legislative actions that she believes would achieve that goal:

First: Expand eligibility requirements for child care assistance.  The sate currently offers subsidies to working parents who are at or below 127% of the federal poverty level; the national average for such assistance is 185% of the poverty level. Mott-Oxford advocates for revising the way we determine the poverty level. She points out that we use a measure developed in the 1950s and 60s that is based on the cost of food; 60 years later, such a measure is no longer realistic as other expenses, housing and health care, for instance, stand in a different ratio to the cost of food than they did in the past.

Second: Reimburse child care providers at the market rate. We all know that we only get what we pay for, and we can’t expect to get good child care providers for a pittance.

Third: Offer support to day care providers to enable them to obtain training that will, in turn, allow them to offer a better product, one that will merit higher pay.

Fourth: Fund outreach to increase participation in the Parents as Teachers program.  

Mott-Oxford’s H.B. 583, which was introduced last session, would have addressed the last three points; sadly it didn’t survive the session. We can only hope that the time has finally come when Missouri’s lawmakers will be willing to address the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens. In Missouri 212,369 children live in poverty. As the Operation Breakthrough Webpage eloquently notes:

These children are full of potential. With the right start they can absolutely become the fireman who comes to the rescue, the chef who feeds the town, the lawyer who fights for what is right or the doctor who saves the day. They can be contributors to the community.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that serving the potential of these children will cost money – money that the state does not have and will not have as long as the legislature will not address the issue of revenue.  In the next few weeks, I hope to write in greater detail about the related issues of poverty and taxation in Missouri.