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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

Is the Doyle Administration Destroying Inner-City Businesses?

Working parents need day care

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Day care providers should expect up to 90 suspensions in the Wisconsin Shares program in the next few weeks, according to information presented at a meeting of day care providers on Saturday.

The potential suspensions, in addition to the more than 100 day cares that had payments suspended last year, would be the result of new background check requirements that could bar providers from the program if the center operators—and in some cases their employees or the people they live with—have been convicted of certain crimes.

Everyone would agree that a person convicted of any kind of child molestation should be permanently barred from being a day care provider, but the current law championed by Gov. Jim Doyle is mean-spirited and counterproductive, the providers’ advocates say.

On Tuesday, Stephanie Hayden, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families (DCF), did not confirm that the suspensions would result after the new regulations go into effect on Feb. 1.

Hayden said DCF wants to ensure that day care centers are safe.

Suspensions for Old Violations and Pending Charges

The new background checks will be conducted quarterly on licensed providers, Hayden said, and annually on household members and employees. Background checks can delve into an individual’s past for some crimes committed after he or she turned 12.

According to a Dec. 7, 2009, DCF memo sent to day care providers, “even if the Department has issued a license or allowed a person to reside at a child care center with a criminal conviction in the past, the Department is now required to revoke the license if the licensee, a household resident or an employee has an offense that will permanently bar that person.”

Providers can be permanently barred for committing small-scale offenses such as food stamp fraud, even if such offenses occurred years ago.

The new regulations also affect those who have been charged but not convicted of certain crimes, even though Americans are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

The memo stated that “under the new law, the Department is required to suspend a child care license if the licensee, a household resident or caregiver has any pending charges for a crime included on the revised crimes list.”

In addition, rules passed in 2009 allow DCF to immediately and indefinitely suspend payments to Wisconsin Shares participants if the agency “reasonably suspects” the provider has committed fraud.

The providers contend that the new regulations are unfair, arbitrary and penalize people who may have made mistakes decades ago.

State Rep. Jason Fields questions the wisdom of new rules that don’t allow people to rehabilitate themselves and find meaningful work.

“We’ve all made mistakes—I’ve made a ton of them,” Fields said. “But because they were mistakes, should that prevent me from being able to live a life of success? Should it prevent me from doing something that I’m passionate about? Should I be held guilty for the rest of my life? I don’t think that’s right. They [the providers] have every reason to be concerned. It is to a point where it is unfair.”

Is This Legal?

The providers feel they have been targeted unfairly by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, DCF and state legislators seeking people to blame for alleged fraud in the state-run Wisconsin Shares program.

The increased pressure began last year, when the Journal Sentinel began reporting on alleged fraud within the program and sensationalized a few cases cherry-picked for its front page. Responding to the Journal Sentinel’s sensationalized reporting, Doyle, the new head of DCF Reggie Bicha and certain lawmakers vowed to root out fraud in the program.

The resulting regulations passed by the state Legislature correctly targeted egregious or intentional fraud. Doyle, however, stripped out the word “intentional” from the legislation, which allows DCF to immediately and indefinitely suspend payments to day care providers that it “reasonably suspects” of committing fraud—an extremely low burden of proof.

Many of the overpayments in question, the providers argue, are due to clerical errors and the state and county’s sloppy administration of the Shares program—not intentional fraud.

The suspended providers appealing their cases complain that the state doesn’t have enough evidence to prove their suspicions. In effect, the providers have to prove their innocence after losing their livelihood, instead of forcing the state to prove its case before suspending payments.

In the meantime, roughly 100 day care centers have been closed down and hundreds of parents are scrambling to find day care for their children so they can go to work because someone in the DCF suspects that there may be a violation.

“The appeals process—I’m not saying the judges are doing anything incorrectly, but I have to believe that there are people who are not looking at this from a fair point of view,” Rep. Fields said. “These ladies are getting their whole livelihoods taken away before they’re even found guilty of anything.”

Providers say the state has lost some of their records and that former employees are being pressured into making false allegations about their former bosses.

Fields has written a letter to state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen questioning the legality and constitutionality of the suspensions and appeals process.

“Some of this—you have to wonder if it is constitutional,” Fields told the Shepherd. “Can you be found guilty before you’re actually found guilty?”

A Witch Hunt

The mood at Saturday’s day care providers’ meeting—which drew about 100 people—was at times angry, frustrated, supportive and positive, depending on the topic and speaker. But mainly these providers are scared that their livelihoods will be taken away from them based on the state’s “reasonable” suspicions and a dragged-out appeals process. Even if vindicated, the providers will have lost five months or more of their income and their good reputations.

The effects of the new regulations, suspensions and what they term a “witch hunt” have been devastating, both personally and professionally, for the providers in the Wisconsin Shares program.

One suspended provider said that three of her former employees, without income since a well-publicized crackdown in mid-September, are now homeless. Another well-respected provider was recently suspended over an infraction she committed when she was 18—decades ago. Yet another provider, suspended over violations she had known nothing about and now disputes, had always been held up as an example for others to follow.

But the providers still in business are feeling threatened, too. While more providers will likely be suspended on Feb. 1, thanks to the more stringent background checks, the names of the providers have not been released.

At least one provider was visibly shaken when she talked about how she had left her professional job to open a day care center a few years ago. She now owns the building that houses the center, and wouldn’t be able to afford its mortgage if the state suspends her payments based on some clerical errors.