PARENTS looking for child care and child-care centers looking for employees may get some help from the state's new regulations governing child-care centers.
Parents will also be guaranteed open doors at all centers and the ability to see their child at any time. Children will be more protected from abuse and neglect because of greater attention to the symptoms of these problems and more specific reporting procedures.
And as signs of the times, the new document, which replaces regulations established 20 years ago, includes provisions for the care of youngsters between 6 weeks and 24 months, and for the operation of short-term drop-in centers at such places as malls and amusement areas.
The new regulations took effect Monday after nearly three years of discussion and revision. This version, passed as "emergency" regulations, will be in effect for at least six months, when they will either be adopted permanently or revised further and enacted.
The regulations detail how day-care centers must operate to be licensed in Maryland. They address the larger issues such as staff qualifications and training and how many children in what size groups can be accommodated by a center, as well as the smaller issues of when center employees must wash their hands and where the children are to keep personal belongings.
The new regulations are the result of many hours of consultation and compromise among center administrators, child-care advocates, bureaucrats and representatives of special interest groups, such as the leadpaint abatement advocates.
"It was a healthy process . . . with a pretty healthy representation from the child-care community," says Roberta Ward, a lawyer for the state's Child Care Administration, which is responsible for implementing and enforcing the regulations.
"Usually we've been left out of the process," says Susan Bartz, president of the Maryland Child Care Association, which represents center directors and operators. But this time, she says, the state was receptive to providers' needs as it "tried very hard to write regulations that would oversee the health and safety of the children."
These regulations will apply to private nursery schools and some religious programs that were not governed by the old regulations. The staffing and program regulations, however, will not apply to the non-profit religious schools, some of which lobbied against any licensing, says Ann Feldman, public policy director for the Maryland Committee for Children, a children's advocacy group.
The new rules strengthen some of the former regulations and liberalize others, says Ward.
It is the liberalizing of space requirements that may give parents a break by opening up about 1,200 new slots in existing centers. The space requirement of 35 square feet per child remains the same, Ward explains, but how that square footage is calculated has been changed to make a difference of about one child more per center.
Likewise, the age provision for some staff members has been lowered from 21 to 20 to alleviate the staffing shortage prevalent in child care, she says.
For previously unlicensed centers, the regulations will be phased in over three years. The licensed centers must comply with them at the time of their annual license renewal, Ward says.
It is this implementation that concerns many people in the child-care community.
"I think we can live with the regulations," says Feldman. But, "it's not what's on paper. It's how it's interpreted and enforced."
Bartz, too, is anxious that there be consistency among the state's licensers as they enforce the regulations. The Child Care Administration has promised providers a booklet of guidelines and interpretations, "so that we can understand and know whether there is consistency," says Bartz.
The day-care centers need support from the administration in understanding and meeting the new regulations, says Toni Ungaretti, an early childhood development specialist. "This is a partnership to make things better for children."
Among the other new regulations are:
* By 1993, every day-care center must have a staff member present at all time who has been certified in infant and child cardiopulmonary resuscitation training.
* Staff members may administer prescription and non-prescription drugs with the written permission of a parent. (The old regulation called for a doctor's permission.)
* Centers must have a written policy on discipline; this policy will not include physical or verbal abuse or neglect or methods, such as washing a child's mouth with soap, that cause the child discomfort.
* Infants must be held while being fed, unless the child is able to and "insistent upon feeding himself."