SOUTH BEND — Indiana lawmakers are focusing on financial incentives as a way to raise standards at child care centers, even those that are associated with religious groups.
The Legislature's interim Committee on Child Care is looking at setting minimum standards for any facility that receives federal money and at offering financial incentives to parents to choose centers that provide a higher level of care.
Faith-based ministries that run child care centers in Indiana must meet far fewer regulations than licensed centers. But the drowning of a 1-year-old boy in a baptismal pool at an Indianapolis church's child care last February reignited the debate about whether the disparate regulations are a good idea.
Previous attempts to set out requirements for child care ministries have failed, primarily because conservative groups said they feared attempts to set a minimum age for caregivers and maximum ratios of children to adults could lead to more government involvement and blur the line between church and state.
But now lawmakers are looking at setting standards just for facilities receiving federal money. In 2011, nearly 4,500 child care facilities in Indiana received funding through Child Care Development Funding vouchers for 33,641 children.
"Facilities that are going to take tax dollars and redeem them need to play along with the rules instead of trying to avoid those just based on what you call yourself. Because if you call yourself a ministry they become exempt from having to abide by a lot of the rules that other folks have to," said state Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, chairman of the interim Committee on Child Care.
Licensed centers must have one adult for every four infants, every five toddlers, every 10 3-year-olds, and 20 6-year-olds. They also must have child care providers who are over the age of 18.
For child care ministries to be registered, they need only be a not-for-profit organization and show that they have a religious affiliation. And that's something that has "a pretty wide definition," said Melanie Brizzi, who heads the state's Bureau of Child Care.
Child care advocates say faith-based ministries should have to meet the same standards as other child care centers in Indiana.
"We should not be saying that some centers are exempt from certain safety precautions or certain supervision requirements just because just because they affiliate themselves as a registered ministry versus a licensed child care center," said Mindi Goodpaster, director of public policy and advocacy coordinator for the Marion County Commission on Youth.
But Micah Clark, executive director of American Family Association of Indiana, contends that putting more restrictions on faith-based facilities might make it harder for some families, especially low-income families, to find child care.
"Many of them might choose to stop taking the vouchers, then there would be fewer options for parents," he said.
Another way Holdman proposes improving child care is by giving tax credits to parents who put their children in centers that have attained the top two levels of the state Family and Social Services Administration's Path to Quality, which is a program for rating facilities. Those in the highest level must have national accreditation, while those in the second-highest level must follow planned curriculum guides aimed at making sure children are ready for school.
"I just think that is good public policy for trying to strengthen preschool education," he said.
One criticism of ministry-based child care centers is that they don't have to be affiliated with a church. A bill recommended by the interim committee would require that the religious organization running such a program has a recognized creed and form of worship, an established place of worship and regular religious services with a congregation.
Clark said he didn't know enough about that part of the proposal to talk about it, but said churches are worried about the state getting too involved in how they run their child care centers because they fear the next step might be trying to regulate church nurseries or Sunday school classes.
"There's worry about the government moving into areas they've never been before," he said.