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A question of child protection

On the issue of protecting children, Hillsborough County commissioners leave much to be desired. Commissioners, with the exception of Jan Platt, clearly demonstrated that last fall when they caved in to a small group of religious organizations opposed to county licensing of child-care centers.

As a follow up, the commission will vote this week on a change in the current ordinance governing child-care centers. The proposal would allow centers affiliated with churches to forgo licensing that seeks only to assure the centers are free of conditions threatening the safety or health of children. That means that county officials could not inspect them for safety and health hazards or even investigate complaints against them on those grounds. Without those inspections, county officials have no way of knowing if the centers meet building and fire codes, if they are properly screening their employees, or if the children are adequately supervised.

The Hillsborough Christian Educators Association, which is pushing the proposal, would like commissioners and the public to believe this is a question of religious freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ordinance applies only to day-care centers, not schools. And it does not address philosophies or teachings.

"We're not making regulations that have anything to do with religion," says Alvin Wolfe, chairman of Hillsborough's Child Care Licensure Board. "We're talking about the health and safety of children. That's all. We have nothing to do with what they teach or how they teach it.

"To have exemptions for religiously affiliated groups is like saying ministers don't have to have drivers' licenses."

Wolfe and others concerned about the safety of children fear that the real agenda here is one of economics. Church centers that would rather save money than comply with health and safety regulations would have an easy out.

Church-affiliated centers "in time would fall into the non-licensed category, when they run into trouble, when they come up for inspection and (inspectors) find something that must be done ... Say it would cost them $3,000 to get (the problem) fixed. They'll say, "We don't have to be licensed anyway. We'll just opt out of licensing and save $3,000.'

"It will be attrition in the direction of poorer quality. I don't think they intend to hurt the children, they're just trying to cut costs."

Indeed, some church-operated centers have already tried that maneuver. Grace Christian School and Day Care center, for example, tried to get out of licensing on grounds of religious freedom when it changed locations two years ago. After the county's child-care licensing department ruled the center was not exempt, county officials inspected it. They found numerous health and safety hazards. The violations were corrected only after the county obtained a court order closing the center.

Wolfe's board wants the County Commission to reject the proposed ordinance changes and, instead, work toward adopting a licensing and inspection system similar to that in Pinellas County. In Pinellas, all child-care centers, regardless of their affiliation, must submit to regular county inspections.

Hillsborough commissioners "now have before them an ordinance that is very, very weak in terms of protection of children," says Wolfe. "The County Commission is foolishly moving down a road that is going to get them into trouble. The commission ultimately is responsible for the protection of children.

"I know of no (public) organization that deals with children that agrees with the commission's stand."

At least one commissioner has acknowledged that she made a mistake when she voted with the majority last fall. Phyllis Busansky says she didn't understand the ramifications of her stand. She was uninformed.

Let's hope she and her colleagues do a better job educating themselves this time around. Let's hope, too, that they have the courage to put children before politics.

Based on their performance, that's asking a lot.