California parents may soon find out a little more about what state inspectors think of their children's day care centers.
After more than seven years of delay, the Department of Social Services now plans to post online basic inspection information on the nearly 48,000 child care facilities statewide within a few months. The majority of other states, including Florida, Texas and New York, already make this information available with a few clicks.
Will Lightbourne, the department's director, said yesterday that parents will soon be able to see online citations against day care, preschool and after-school programs, as well as residential homes for the elderly.
The data won't be complete. It will cover the past three years. Under state law, day care centers must be inspected once every five years. And parents won't be able to see the specific details of what provoked the citations.
"If we register that information on a consumer-facing site, we're surely ahead of where we are now," Lightbourne told legislators at a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly human services committees.
The action comes weeks after The Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with NBC Bay Area and KQED, revealed how California keeps parents in the dark on what it knows about day care and child care conditions. Currently, California parents have to call or visit obscure government offices or attempt to solicit the information from the child care providers themselves.
"It's not acceptable," said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, in an interview. "It just seems incredible that a simple thing like that the state of California can't handle."
The department has been under pressure since 2006 by the state auditor to make the information in its child care records more accessible to the public but has failed to do so. CIR has been trying to get electronic copies of the child care records from the state under the California Public Records Act with the hopes of putting them online. The department said it would cost more than $20,000 and take more than two years for CIR to get the public data.
Department officials have blamed budget cuts from the recent recession and an antiquated technology system for the holdup in getting the records online. At the hearing, Lightbourne called the new online effort a "fairly limited tool."
The department's outdated technology system is in need of a larger, comprehensive overhaul. Lightbourne estimates it will take three to five years for the department to upgrade and offer more complete records to the public online. With that technology, the department could better pinpoint troubled facilities and analyze violations for larger trends.
One legislator expressed concern that the solution the department is currently developing might not be so temporary.
"Temporary fixes tend to be cast in concrete forever, and then we're back here looking at the same kind of questions several years from now," said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, in an interview. "This is California for crying out loud. We have so many great tools for data collection and then dissemination that we need to be using them."
Yesterday's hearing focused on residential homes for the elderly, but the plan includes day care inspections. Recent reports by ProPublica and U-T San Diego uncovered serious problems in California's oversight of assisted-living facilities.
Legislators are hoping to make a number of changes at the department. A bill brought by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, would require the department to put online more extensive information about residential homes for the elderly.
The state's current plan to post just three years of data may not tell some families much. Under state law, these facilities need only be inspected once every five years. A bill brought by Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-City of Industry, seeks to mandate annual inspections.