Despite a looming deadline that could deprive thousands of young children of day care, Illinois has made scant progress on ensuring providers attend safety training required to keep their state subsidies.

This is according to new numbers obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The providers could lose their paychecks, and children of low-income working families who rely on the program could be displaced, if caregivers don’t record their trainings within 90 days or if the state doesn’t revise its requirements.

According to data, only 1 in 3 providers who make up the majority of the state-subsidized child care program have met the new safety requirements, despite a Sept. 30 deadline that came and went. This group — known as friend, family, and neighbor care — accounts for 70 percent of all subsidized caregivers in Cook County. They are paid $16 a day by the state.

The trainings list includes CPR, first aid, a protocol for reporting suspected abuse, and a series on health and safety skills. The lessons originally were proposed to span 56 hours. The program has since been winnowed down to eight, with only four hours required by Sept. 30.

Despite those changes, early childhood advocates and the union that represents the providers have called the requirements and the state’s haphazard communication about them overly burdensome, especially for older caregivers who have never used a computer and for rural providers who live dozens of miles from the nearest CPR training site.

Critics said the state’s shifting deadlines and complicated reporting system have cause confusion among caregivers and that participation is declining.

“These are very bad and very punitive requirements,” said Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, the union that represents some of the providers.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the program, said that her agency is not trying to be punitive, but rather is attempting to raise standards for all publicly funded providers as required by a 2014 federal law.

“We’ve tried to make training available as many places as possible, and at as many times as possible,” said Meghan Powers. “These are people paid through state dollars, and we think they should have the same type of training requirements as someone who is paid privately.”

Dan Harris, the executive director of the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which maintains the state’s credentialing system and designs the trainings, said his organization is partnering with local agencies and the state human services department to “arrive at a resolution that maintains the integrity of the system” and doesn’t threaten the care of children across the state.

Lori Longueville, who runs a referral agency that serves the state’s southernmost counties, said it’s time to step back and evaluate “if the path we are on is really right.”

“We need to be open to making changes.”

A program under stress

Not even established daycare center directors have fully embraced the training. According to the data obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request, only about 40 percent of licensed centers that receive the subsidy have completed the entire training regimen, and about 20 percent of staff at license-exempt centers — those typically operating in churches, for example — so far have met the requirements.

The training snafu puts stress on a program that already has been losing providers and children. After Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements in 2015, the number of children served dropped by 31 percent. As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly.

The Rauner administration ultimately reversed its changes. But advocates are concerned that the program is still contracting. Cook County-based Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency, said that 2,362 children, or 15 percent, of children have dropped out of its subsidized family and neighbor care program in the past 12 months.

The number of participating caregivers in that program has dropped 12 percent, too, over a similar timeframe.

“This drop represents an ongoing trend that began 2½ years ago,” said Maria Whelan, the group’s executive director.

This doesn’t even account for the impact of the new training requirements or their enforcement, Whelan added.  

More than half of Illinois children are in the care of family, friends, or neighbors — a trend that’s observed across the country, according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America. The report, which was released this week, said that only 1 in 6 children nationwide who are eligible for a subsidy actually receives one, which raises serious questions about hurdles families face trying to find affordable, quality care. Illinois is one of the least affordable states for child care in the report. 

Dionne Dobbins, a lead researcher on the report, said that anemic reimbursement rates, compliance issues, mandatory trainings, and overregulation threaten programs in several states, not just Illinois.

“Throughout the country, we see providers not being able to keep their businesses open, and they are going under,” said Dobbins.

Other pressure points

Illinois providers will soon encounter another hurdle. The state notified providers in an August letter that it will be sending out independent monitors to conduct safety visits. The letter did not spell out inspection criteria or a deadline.

Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, said that safety visits are a good idea in theory, but they are a huge undertaking that should be approached thoughtfully. Some family providers — such as a grandmother caring for her grandchildren — could be reluctant to let someone into their homes.

“Improving quality for children in all settings matters a great deal and so does creating approaches for holding providers accountable,” Whelan said. But, she added, “what we do not want to see happen is punitive monitoring protocols.”

A monitoring program built on strong relationships between agencies and providers could help link more families with formal preschool programs or other critical services, such as food pantries or doctors. However, if mishandled and providers are sanctioned or scared off, agencies risk losing an important connection to some of the state’s most vulnerable families.

Depending on the outcome of the Nov. 6 gubernatorial race, the whole scenario could change. The winner will oversee how the state enforces the training requirements, and perhaps whether it will cut off caregivers.That’s because federal law establishes that training and monitoring must happen, but states decide many of the particulars — including who is required to complete it.