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Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

The End of Innocence

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This is the time of year when nothing warms our hearts like the thought of happy, laughing children with bright, shining faces lining up to be showered with special attention from grown-ups—like when the state begins checking all their tiny little fingerprints every day when they arrive at day care.

We expected the Legislature to turn more mean-spirited when Republicans took over both houses in January. But the bright idea of fingerprinting toddlers comes from Democrats in the outgoing Legislature.

The Legislature authorized setting up a system to track attendance at day care facilities. And the Joint Finance Committee last week unanimously approved spending $1 million to begin scanning fingerprints of children in day care.

If that sounds excessive, you have to realize the Legislature always goes to extremes when it’s trying to shift the blame for its own misdeeds.


Lack of Training, Oversight


In this particular case, the Legislature is trying to cover up its negligence in creating a $296-million, state-subsidized, day-care program without proper training, management or oversight.

That’s not the way politicians describe it. Politicians say they are cracking down on widespread fraud by unscrupulous day care operators. What they don’t say is they created the entire, mismanaged, multimillion-dollar day care system.

It’s not really surprising the state program was so poorly constructed. Proper day care for children was never the point. The creation of an enormous day care industry was more of a side effect.

The need for subsidized day care was the result of another program politicians were eager to pass: welfare reform.

That was always a misnomer. “Reform” means to make something better. Politicians never had any intention of making welfare better. Their only goal was to slash the amount of public money going to poor people.

If welfare reform had been intended to lift families out of poverty, it would have provided incentives for single mothers to attend college to acquire credentials that could lead to family-supporting jobs.

Instead, the program forced women receiving assistance to drop out of college and work at minimum-wage jobs.

Single mothers would no longer receive any assistance for staying at home to care for their own children. But they’d receive assistance for working in day care taking care of someone else’s children.

Requiring single mothers to work full-time created the enormous boom in day care throughout African-American and Latino communities. Driving along residential streets in poor neighborhoods, you would see home after home with Big Bird or Elmo painted on the windows.

With nearly $300 million a year in public money funding day care frequently run by first-time operators with little business experience, the state should have provided professional training and sufficient oversight to make sure children were in safe environments.

But that was never a priority like cutting money going to the poor.

A bright, young reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting abuses within the program, including a few unscrupulous operators who were accused of defrauding the system for large sums of money.

Although the stories were an indictment of the poor management by the state, all many remember are the pictures of black women accused of fraud.

There has been far less reporting about the lack of due process for many day care operators as the state scurries to prove it’s getting tough. Day care operators who have not been accused of any crimes have had their income-producing businesses abruptly shut down.

They say they have to wait for months, without any income, to even get a hearing to present evidence or answer claims made against them.

Certainly, no one should be permitted to endanger children’s safety or get paid for children they are not caring for. But neither should they arbitrarily lose their livelihoods without a fair hearing.

Many cannot help feeling they would not be automatically assumed to be guilty if they were of a different class or color.

Now African-American and Latino parents are appalled to learn the state is getting ready to start scanning the fingerprints of their preschool children.

Apparently, it’s never too early to start getting the fingerprints of children of color.

According to the Sentencing Project, if racial disparities in the criminal justice system continue at the present rate, one in three African-American males born today will serve time in prison. Why wait to get the fingerprints until potential criminals know the alphabet?

Politicians who approved the plan say the fear of the fingerprint scanners is overblown. They say it’s merely biometric computer technology, not inking up children’s tiny fingers.

Actually, that’s worse.

It really is the end of innocence if children of color have miniature versions of their fingerprints in our vast law enforcement database from the time they’re in day care on the assumption they’ll be involved in illegal activity someday.