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Federal standards coming to child-care centers, homes

– After a growing number of high-profile media reports of children who have died or been injured in child care, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday morning that it will for the first time impose tough national health and safety standards for all child-care facilities that accept government subsidies.

The proposed regulations will require workers in all subsidized child-care centers and homes to be trained in first-aid procedures, such as CPR, and safe sleeping practices. They call for universal background checks and fingerprinting of child-care workers. And they impose tough standards for monitoring and inspections to ensure that the regulations are being followed.

Although the new regulations apply only to the 513,000 child-care centers and family homes that accept subsidies for the 1.6 million children who receive them through the federal Child Care and Development Fund, HHS officials said the hope is that non-subsidized centers will follow suit.

“We frankly can’t wait any longer,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, making the announcement Thursday morning at CentroNia, a child-care center in Washington. “Fifteen years have passed since we last updated our child-care rules, and we’ve had tragic stories of children lost and families devastated because there were no safety standards in place to protect them. We have a sacred responsibility to protect our children.”

The new regulations are “common sense” standards to both protect children and give parents more information to make informed decisions, Sebelius said.

President Obama, spurred by new science on how critical the early years are for brain development and by lagging academic achievement among economically disadvantaged children, has made early-childhood development a key policy for his second administration, pushing for millions to fund universal pre-K programs.

HHS officials said the administration is “adamant” about instituting new regulations.

The new regulations would supersede the current patchwork of health and safety standards that each state now sets and that critics have long argued are too low and endanger too many children. As many as one in five children who receive the child-care subsidy are in unlicensed and unregulated child-care settings with no health and safety requirements at all.

The current federal health standards are minimal. They require only that subsidized providers prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases, that the building and physical premises are safe and providers have minimum health and safety training.

Other than that, states have broad flexibility to set their own standards.

In Indiana, Reef said, one child in a subsidized church-run child-care center wandered off and was later found drowned in a baptismal pool. Indiana exempts child-care centers run by religious organizations.

The Child Care and Development Fund was last reauthorized by Congress in 1996, when it was consolidated with three other federal child-care programs for the very poor. It was set to be reauthorized in 2002.

Although a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., held a series of hearings in recent years to rewrite the law and address these health and safety issues, their efforts never fully gained traction in Congress.