Mary Zaleski, a Rosedale mother who has provided family day care in her home for the last four years, says she wouldn't take care of eight children every day if she didn't care so much about them.
Most providers, she says, do their jobs in both a professional and loving manner. That's why, Ms. Zaleski adds, she and others who offer day care in their homes are angry at what they consider over-officiousness and uneven enforcement of regulations by the state Child Care Administration.
The agency was created two years ago to make licensing and regulation simpler and more fair. But Ms. Zaleski -- who is president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Family Child Care Association, an advocacy group for the 12,000 Marylanders who are licensed to care for children in their homes -- says the agency's reputation is so bad that people would rather risk a $1,000 fine for running unlicensed operations than deal with the hassles of working with the state.
Ms. Zaleski is registered. But it's hardly a coincidence, she says, that the number of day-care providers who choose not to register is two to four times the number who do. Or that when the state offered an "amnesty" to the estimated 24,000 to 48,000 unregistered day-care providers earlier this year, only about 550 people signed up.
Novella Sargusingh, a Prince George's County day-care mother who is also registered, complains that she and other providers are "madder than hell."
The agency has done little more than "harass a lot of providers," she says. Ms. Sargusingh, state president of the Family Child Care Association, points to the case of a Howard County day-care mother whose license was revoked by the state because she put a misbehaving 22-month-old child in a bathroom for "quiet time."
The child's parents had instructed the woman to do precisely what she did, Ms. Sargusingh says. But another parent, whose )) child was also cared for by the Howard County woman, witnessed the incident and reported it.
"The parents of the child support the provider in this case, but the [state] won't listen," Ms. Sargusingh says. "What they're saying is that their opinion of proper discipline is more important than what the child's parents feel."
Karen Hudson of Rossville, in eastern Baltimore County, takes her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter to Mary Zaleski's home for day care. Ms. Hudson, a client representative for a local medical insurer, says the state should play a part in monitoring child care, but not to the extent that it overrules the wishes of parents.
"Regulations are fine, but let the parent decide whether a certain provider is going to be a good person to watch your children," she says.
Jerry Carton and his wife Carole, a Pikesville provider, were so angry at what they considered the arbitrary wrath of the agency that they complained to a state senator. Mr. Carton says his wife, who has been registered with the state since 1986, was "treated like a criminal" after an 18-month-old girl accidentally fell and broke her hip last December while in Carole Carton's care.
The Department of Human Resources' Child Protective Services investigated the incident and cleared Mrs.Carton. But shortly afterward, Mr. Carton says, a local official of the state agency began making frequent, unannounced visits to the Carton home and cited Mrs. Carton for not throwing away soiled paper towels and for not clamping lids on outdoor trash cans.
Jerry Carton says the state used those petty infractions to reduce the maximum number of children his wife could care for. A family day-care provider is licensed to watch up to eight children, including up to two children under 2 years old. Mrs. Carton was permitted to take care of only five.
The Cartons complained to state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman because they knew her to be a reputed advocate of child care. She, in turn, wrote to the executive director of the Child Care Administration, Barbara Smith-Hamer, calling the agency's treatment of the Cartons "harsh."
The couple also threatened to sue the state agency for hurting Carole Carton's reputation as a child-care provider, and for depriving her of income by limiting the number of children she could care for. But last month, agency officials reviewed Mrs. Carton's case and ruled that she could watch up to eight children again.
While the Cartons say they're happy that their particular problem was resolved, other providers in the state continue to complain about inconsistent enforcement of rules by the agency's officers.
During hearings on the ChildCare Administration's budget, Senator Hoffman heard testimony from other home day-care providers who leveled similar complaints about the agency. They urged the state to hire more licensing specialists -- the employees who work directly with day-care providers -- and to increase the ratio of child-care regulators to child-care providers.