Area child care providers are following through on their plans to hold a half-day walkout next week to protest what they say are inconsistencies in Department of Human Services regulations at the Capitol in St. Paul.

At least five child care centers — Here We Grow and Child's Planet in Mankato, Hey Diddle Diddle in St. Peter, and Creative Minds and Robin's Nest in North Mankato — have confirmed they will close Wednesday afternoon to demonstrate inside the Capitol from 1:30-4:30 p.m. Local organizers expect more providers from around the state will join in as they publicize the event.

"We're not trying to inconvenience families but there does come a time where we have to advocate for ourselves, and we've reached that point," said Elizabeth Bangert, executive director at Here We Grow.

Bangert and other child care providers have recently testified before lawmakers about the inconsistent manner in which DHS inspectors cite providers, many times for seemingly small or frivolous violations.

She and her staff recently publicly shared about 4,000 citations for more than 300 child care centers in Minnesota. That DHS data spans about eight years, from 2010 to December 2017.

Bangert told lawmakers earlier this month they found 41 citations over toilet plungers found in the bathroom, 40 violations for adult scissors on a countertop and a violation for prickly grass. One child care center was cited for rabbit feces and a stick in nearby grass.

She has found support among Democrats and Republicans alike, but she said providers want lawmakers to review state regulations governing child care providers to make them easier to understand and enforce.

Lawmakers are looking into reforming some of those regulations this session. A bill sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, would direct DHS to begin reforming child care regulations by reviewing best practices and gathering feedback from providers, inspectors and other state officials.

The House Health and Human Services Reform Committee took up the bill Wednesday, where Bangert testified such reform was necessary to hold inspectors accountable.

Child care providers have sometimes struggled with human services officials across the U.S. for decades. Tom Copeland, a nationally recognized advocate for child care businesses, said this could be the first time providers have sifted through public data or called for a walkout.

"In other states, providers have been doing the same thing for 20 years, and nothing's happened," he said.

Citations carry harsh punishments for child care providers. Even seemingly small citations can force a center or a family day care to temporarily close while it addresses the issue. Because providers are often paid little — the average provider gets paid close to $9 per hour, according to state data — child care businesses often operate on thin profit margins, which means a citation could force businesses to close.

Some lawmakers point to increased regulations as the reason why there's a shortage of providers in the state, particularly in Greater Minnesota. The Mankato-based Center of Rural Policy and Development found Greater Minnesota lost more than 15,000 spots for children at child care businesses between 2006 and 2016. The majority of that came from in-home providers. 

While regulations can affect child care businesses, Copeland points to a lack of government funding as the underlying cause of so many issues with running a child care business.

In the past, inspectors were able to offer advice to providers on child care issues before issuing citations. State funding hasn't kept up with increasing demands for services, however, and inspectors today are bogged down by higher caseloads.

At the same time, providers say they can't get the advice they need from state officials in a prompt manner. Because reimbursements aren't keeping up with child care costs, providers often don't have money to hire lawyers or seek legal advice to address their own situations, let alone state regulations.

"It's a completely underfunded system," Copeland said. "All of those things I think are part of it."

Regina Wagner, deputy inspector general at DHS, told lawmakers Wednesday state officials recognize they need to update some of the regulations and do a better job of communicating with providers. 

"Folks are making it very clear that these rules are very outdated," Wagner said. "And when we have to use our variance authority, when we have to do these one-offs for things that are really system issues, we need to do a better job of capturing that, bringing it forward with stakeholder input and modernizing our rules."

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said she's heard from providers who are scared to testify for fear DHS inspectors will retaliate with surprise visits or citations. Bangert told lawmakers she went on vacation in mid-March so she could buy GoPros and look into legal services after she heard about a local provider visited by two inspectors who brought cameras with them, which Bangert said was the first time she had ever heard of inspectors using cameras during a visit.

Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said she's discovered similar concerns in her district, only it's the parents who are asking lawmakers to do something about DHS inspectors. 

"This is really happening, and it's in a place where two people had to quit their jobs because they did not have any other way to take care of their children," Kiel said.

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