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Feds propose overhaul for child care centers
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) - Federal health officials proposed Thursday to overhaul 500,000 child care centers across the country, beefing up safety standards including background and fingerprint checks for employees and requiring states to better monitor the facilities.

Roughly 1.6 million U.S. children attend child care centers on subsidies — paid in the form of vouchers to families — from the federal government. But health, safety and program quality requirements for those facilities vary widely, and states monitor them through a patchwork of rules.

The proposed changes to centers where families use the vouchers were announced Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington as part of a broader agenda by President Barack Obama to ensure health and safety across all early learning environments and to improve the quality of facilities and their workers to prepare children for kindergarten.

"Too many children remain in settings that do not meet minimum standards of health and safety," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "These basic rules ensure that providers take necessary basic steps to shield children from an avoidable tragedy."

The rules would increase accountability among child care providers and aim to improve transparency so parents know more about the facility their children attends. States would have to comply with the standards to receive the federal funds.

Workers would undergo fingerprinting and background checks and be required to receive training in first aid, CPR, safe sleeping for babies and poison prevention. The proposal also would set guidelines for transporting children in an effort to reduce the number of deaths of children left in cars.

States would be required to conduct unannounced, in-person inspections at each center. States vary widely on how they monitor child care centers, with some allowing self-certification for facilities to check off on a mailed-in form whether they have smoke detectors and safety plans. That wouldn't fly under the new rules.

Many parents mistakenly think their child care facilities are already following these measures, and the proposal aims to better inform families about facilities' track records. The proposed rules would require all states to post licensing, health and safety inspection records online in plain language. About 30 states already do so. The rules also would require all states to use a rating system for quality issues, including curriculum and learning environment. About half the states already use such a system.

Accessibility to government-funded child care also is addressed. The proposal would encourage states to give more flexibility to families and to address care for children while unemployed parents look for work.