SPRING HILL — The jug of antifreeze sat open in the corner of the living room, close to where the children played.
A staffer of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition, who was on an annual visit to talk about curriculum, noticed it and alerted the owner of the private home day care.
"People know antifreeze can kill dogs, but it can also kill children," said Jim Farrelly, executive director of the nonprofit agency that oversees subsidized day care and the universal prekindergarten program in the two counties.
The owner immediately removed the safety hazard. Potential crisis averted.
However, the owner of the home-based day care could have refused, with no consequences.
"We would have had no recourse," Farrelly said.
As of this week, that's no longer the case. Hernando County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to close a state loophole that allowed certain child care centers in private homes to go without being inspected by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Pasco commissioners did the same thing in March. The votes make the county rules stricter than the state's, which give owners the option of being licensed with DCF or simply registered with the agency. Homes that are registered are not subject to inspections.
Child care centers outside the home, on the other hand, are required to be licensed through either DCF or a religious accrediting agency if they are faith-based.
The votes came at the urging of the Early Learning Coalition and its board, which is made up of representatives from both counties.
The decision affects only businesses being run out of homes. Informal arrangements, such as when grandparents care for children in their homes while parents are at work, don't have to be licensed and are not affected by the new rules.
Farrelly and Kim Borrego, school readiness program quality manager, lobbied county commissioners to close the loophole after it became evident that state lawmakers were not going to, even though it's "been promised for years," Farrelly said. Manatee County last year did the same thing.
"Believe it or not, it wasn't easy," Farrelly said.
Pasco commission Chairwoman Pat Mulieri was supportive, but the county attorney's office had to make sure that county officials had the authority to enact stricter rules. After the attorney gave the green light, commissioners approved it unanimously in March. Hernando followed suit.
Farrelly said the two counties have 68 registered homes. As of Aug. 1, those homes will have to be licensed through DCF. Any day care homes opening before then will have to be licensed immediately. The cost is $25 a year, plus any upgrades that have to be done to comply with licensing rules.
The coalition has incentive grants that pay half of the cost of the improvements if its board approves. This year it has given $108,000 to facility improvements and has budgeted slightly more for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
"When you're talking about protecting children, $25 a year is a ridiculously small investment," Farrelly said.
He said the home child care owners were notified about the issue and given the opportunity to speak during public hearings before the commissioners voted. No one showed up.
Cynthia Clower, who has operated a registered home care business for five years in Dade City, said it would cost her significantly more money to comply with the regulations, but she chose to stay open and be licensed rather than close.
"If I have to put up a fence, it'll cost a lot," she said. She said that with a registered home, she and her mother still had to undergo background checks. But her day care, which is allowed to have up to 10 kids, didn't have to follow the stringent rules that licensed centers do.
"You can't even have toothpaste out" as a licensed facility, she said. "It has to be under lock and key."
Farrelly said he started the push after hearing horror stories from other states that have license exemptions for home-based day cares.
One day after Pasco approved the new rules, Farrelly learned of a grease fire at a child care home in Houston that was registered but not licensed. It was among 2,219 such homes in Texas.
Four preschoolers died.
Farrelly said he wants to prevent such tragic headlines here.
"We feel we are protecting hundreds of children right away and down the road," he said. "This is one of the most important things we've done in recent years at the coalition."