Timothy Dunnuck walked around the center, checking in on classes and chatting with children and teachers. As the manager of Campus Child Care, he has done this routine a thousand times.
“Are you doing OK today?” he asked a 3-year-old child.
The boy nodded.
“Did you stick your foot in a hole yesterday?” Dunnuck said.
“Yeah,” the boy said.
“That’s too bad, you are all right now?” Dunnuck said.
“I think so,” the boy said, nodding and giggling.
Safety is always Dunnuck’s first concern, he said.
“It is a big issue,” Dunnuck said. “Especially when kids are running around a playground, there are lots of threats out there.”
As executive director of IU Early Childhood Education, he oversees five day cares that serve IU students and faculty.
Amid reports of lax safety standards, the state government is trying to create a safer environment in Indiana day cares the past few years, an issue critics say has been overlooked for decades.
As of July 1, 2013, Indiana child care centers were required to run staff background checks. The state also invested an additional $23 million in child care programs for low-income Hoosiers.
Despite the efforts, operators and experts said the high cost of regulation, small inspection scope and high turnover of early childhood teachers slows progress.
An untold amount of day cares can operate without licenses because if the number of children is fewer than five in total, they may be exempt.
In Indiana, day cares can be divided into five categories.
The first is licensed day care centers, which have the most regulations. Child Care Development Fund providers are day cares that receive federal funds that serve low-income parents.
Day cares operated by churches register with the state voluntarily and are inspected twice every year. Licensed day care homes look after between six and 16 children at a residential home.
Day care homes that care for less than five children have no inspection or rules because they can register and operate without a license.
Indiana Family and Social Services Administration Spokesperson Marni Lemons said under current law, the only way to regulate the unlicensed or illegal homes or centers is through filed complaints.
If authorities find a center is operating illegally, they will provide a cease and desist order.
“That’s the extent of what we can do,” Lemons said.
Dunnuck said he doesn’t understand why Indiana requires licenses for fishing and hunting, but a place that takes care of children can be operated without one.
“We believe all centers should have the same requirement,” Dunnuck said.
Indiana House Bill 1036 aims to tighten regulation of unlicensed daycares like church and home day cares. Opponents claim the bill, in the process of passing to the Indiana Senate, would interfere with the religious freedom of church day cares.
The expense of background checks for workers can also slow the process of improving safety.
Dunnuck said background checks cost him thousands of dollars because he has to pay $40 for each individual staff member for the three licensed centers he oversees.
Some smaller day care centers may have to use money from the professional development budget, which they usually use to train their staff, Dunnuck said.
Jon Racek, the father of two pre-school girls in Bloomington, said it took time to find a day care that was both qualified and affordable.
Of the five day cares Dunnuck oversees, three were licensed. Toddler fees are $240 per week, and infant fees are $254 per week because toddlers and infants need the most attendance.
Racek, an IU faculty member in the Department of Apparel Merchandising & Interior Design, said the cost of day care is too high.
“It costs more than our mortgage,” Racek said.
According to a study by Child Care Aware of America Advocacy Network, an organization that aims to provide information and services to parents across the nation, Indiana is among the least affordable day care states.
A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count shows 50 percent of preschool-aged children come from low-income families in Indiana.
Despite the high cost, the money did not go to the pockets of day care center employees.
“It’s not a money-making business,” Dunnuck said. “I wasn’t able to buy a house for my family until I was 50.”
In recent years, preschool teachers’ average salaries are less than $22,000 nationwide, while bus drivers make $26,000 on average, according to Indeed.com.
Michelle McCready, director of policy for Child Care Aware, said the money is being spent in multiple ways including payrolls, staff training, quality raising and regulation management.
“This is not easy for either the parents or the child care providers,” she said.
Dunnuck said he thinks the state is not doing enough because many people do not care that much about regulation of child care.
Nationwide, Child Care Aware works on projects to increase the quality and availability of child care, undertaking research and advocating child care policies that aim to benefit communities, McCready said.
The proposals will be applicable to all day care centers that receive federal funding.
Unlicensed or illegal day care homes are still off the radar because no one is obligated to supervise them.
“They only need to obey the fire marshal,” Dunnuck said.