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Changes threaten daycares

WORTHINGTON -- Stricter policy on variances that allow daycare providers in Nobles and Pipestone counties to temporarily accept additional infants in their care has created an uproar in the daycare community and led to a special meeting with county human services officials Tuesday night in Worthington.

The meeting, to begin at 7 p.m. in the First Lutheran Church fellowship hall, will include daycare providers from both counties and human services supervisors. Nobles and Pipestone counties share a human services director, as well as several key staff people. County commissioners and parents of children in daycare have also been invited

While Minnesota Department of Human Services guidelines dictate how many children of a particular age can be in a provider's care at any one time, individual counties have the authority to grant temporary variances to allow for an additional infant for a short period of time.

In the past, Nobles County was a bit more lenient on the variances -- allowing some to extend for up to a year, according to human services director Nicole Names, who has been in that position since July. She and Beth Mahoney, children services supervisor since March, are in the midst of creating a new policy for variance requests that will considerably shorten the duration -- to a maximum of 30 days.

"The length of time providers are wanting a variance for is 6 or 8 months," said Names. "That's long term -- that's really not the intent of the variance."

"We don't have to give variances," added Mahoney. "There's a management team that's come on board that did things quite a bit differently and we're trying to find a nice, medium ground."

Mahoney, who previously worked in Stevens County, said the short-term variances they allowed there weren't a problem.

"I just assumed we were pretty reasonable," she said. "There are some unhappy people (here)."

Among them is Tami Rogers, a rural Reading daycare provider and past president of the Nobles County Daycare Association. She said shortening the maximum length of time for a variance is going to have implications for daycare providers and leave some families scrambling for childcare -- in some cases forcing them to split up siblings if there isn't an infant opening in the daycare their older children attend.

"It is a dilemma to find infant and toddler care in Nobles County," Rogers said. Licensed to care for up to 12 children -- including one infant and two toddlers -- she's submitted two variance requests within the last month and both were denied. During the winter months, she has just three to six kids in her daycare.

"If we think we can't handle it, we don't ask for the variance," she said. "I need more kids to build my business, and I need to help friends out there that need infant and toddler daycare."

A survey conducted by Human Services in September showed there are openings for infants in Nobles County. Of the 52 surveys distributed, 38 were returned. The results showed 25 infant openings county-wide, including two in Adrian, three in Brewster, three in Rushmore, two in Ellsworth and 15 in Worthington. In at least two of those instances, daycares were licensed for up to two infants but preferred not to have them in their care.

As for families not wanting to split siblings between two different daycares, Mahoney said she had to do it for five months when her own children were young.

"There will be inconveniences, but I think people want what's best for their kids and want the best care for their kids," she said. "We're not being unreasonable."

Safety first

Nobles and Pipestone county Human Services officials say safety is the reason behind their decision to shorten the length of variances.

Though Mahoney said they have not had any safety issues in the past, she wants to avoid situations where a provider may become overwhelmed or can't perform at their "greatest potential" because an extra infant is allowed in their care for an extended period of time.

"It's all about keeping kids safe and giving the providers the opportunity to do the best job they can do," she said. "I believe in good quality, licensed care and these women are giving that."

The rule tightening on variance requests began in January under the direction of daycare licensor Deb Clem. Since then, Nobles County has received 27 requests for variances. Of those, seven were approved, 14 were denied and six were either not submitted in writing or were withdrawn.

"The ones that were denied, we gave them other options," Mahoney said, adding that all of the providers could change their licensure to the highest level, which allows for a total capacity of 14 children, including up to three infants and one toddler. To be licensed at that level, however, a second adult must be hired to help care for the children.

"I know there are some very unhappy providers, but I don't think there are many instances where that is not an option for them," Mahoney said.

While it may be an option for providers, it's one that comes with additional costs.

Pipestone County Daycare Association president Jodi Swenson said it's a losing proposition.

"By going to a C-3, we can only add two more kids, but when you add a helper, you're going to have to pay your helper more than the additional money those two kids are going to bring in for you," said Swenson, who has operated a home daycare in Pipestone for the past four years.

"It's kind of frustrating," she added. "We've got such a shortage with daycares and there's such a high need. It's frustrating just knowing that we're able to take care of (additional children) but we can't."

Swenson said Pipestone County daycares were also allowed to get variances for up to a year before the new crackdown. Pipestone County is home to two daycare centers and 13 home daycares, she added.

"The main concern is babies -- there's a huge need for daycare for babies," she added.

Meet in the middle

Both sides in the debate over variance lengths are hoping Tuesday night's meeting will allow them to be heard and find somewhat of a common ground.

"We want to work together with these supervisors," said Rogers. "It seems that we get the vibe that they don't care -- it's very frustrating. We care about the kids and the parents and it's so stressful right now to try to make a living and to worry about where your child is going to be in daycare.

"We just want to come to a compromise," she said, adding that she would like to see "at least a six-month" variance allowed. "When you have a variance, you can't take other kids. That's why it's worked -- we have guidelines."

Names said there are "many counties" in Minnesota that don't allow any variances, and added that Nobles and Pipestone counties are developing a policy that is more conservative than it has been.

The new policy that has been drafted is currently with the Nobles County attorney. It specifies variance requests of no more than 30 days may be awarded.

"What that really is for is to allow for some flexibility like taking a new infant or another child on," Names said. "We are not supporting long-term additional children outside your class capacity.

"We're well within our means of what DHS (Department of Human Services) sets for a licensing rule," she added. "We do intend fully to entertain variance requests -- we're just letting the providers know those are short-term requests. It's meant to be an exception."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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