Last year a child nearly strangled on a rope that was left wrapped around the top of a tetherball pole at a Pasco preschool. The ball that was originally attached had come off, and the child climbed to the top on stacked milk crates.
The center was licensed by the Department of Children and Families and subject to follow-up inspections.
But a loophole in state law allows certain other centers to go unregulated. The facilities, called in-home family child care centers and operated from private homes, can opt to be registered with DCF, and not licensed. That means DCF has no authority to inspect or regulate them.
It's a situation the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition wants to change.
"You would think all child care providers in the state of Florida would be required to be licensed," said Jim Farrelly, executive director of the coalition, which oversees subsidized preschool programs for the working poor as well as voluntary pre-kindergarten programs open to all 4-year-olds.
Farrelly said his group has contracted with three such homes in Pasco and one in Hernando. However, about 70 such homes are operating in the two counties. These are not private homes in which a relative informally cares for children while parents are at work. They are businesses.
The only other child care centers that are not subject to DCF regulation are faith-based. But those centers are regulated through their religious accreditation agencies.
Farrelly said his staff inspects its affiliated centers annually and whenever they show up for training sessions or to provide toys from the mobile vans.
While there, they take note of any safety problems and report them to DCF or the religious accreditation agency.
"If we go into a registered family child care home and see a playground situation that is potentially very dangerous, say some ropes hanging from a tree, and we say to the owner, 'These ropes have to come down,' and they refuse for whatever reason, we're stuck," Farrelly said. "There's nothing we can do." So far there have been no serious accidents, but Farrelly said he wants to be proactive. "To me it's a no-brainer that we jump on this before we are sitting in a conference room asking why did this happen," he said.
The state Association of Early Learning Coalitions has pushed for a state law closing the loophole everywhere, and Farrelly expects it to pass eventually. Some counties already have tightened up on the rules, including Manatee, which approved a similar measure last year.
Farrelly said he fears that in a legislative session dominated by the need to plug a budget hole, such a statewide initiative might fall through the cracks.
"The problem I grappled with is during that period of time we could have a serious injury or worse in a family home center simply because we couldn't do anything."
Farrelly met with the Pasco County attorney's office to discuss the issue. He said Pasco commissioners reacted favorably at a Jan. 25 presentation by one of his staffers but wanted to hold public hearings because businesses could be affected. The requirement would not force the county to spend any money. However, the affected homes might have to pay a minimal licensing fee and spend money necessary to meet safety requirements.
Farrelly said the most common is likely to be fencing in playgrounds. However, homes that his organization contracts with are eligible for grants and incentives to help pay for the improvements.
"The economic impact is small, but the impact from a child's perspective is prospectively huge. We're playing at the craps table that a tragedy can't happen."