Janice Slaughter often takes her 19-month-old granddaughter to the Tiny Tots child care center in Jackson, Miss., or picks her up in the afternoon so that her daughter, the baby’s mother, can attend school.
Slaughter brought her own children to the same center when they were babies and has known the owner for years.
But, soon, she and her daughter, who receives a federally funded child care subsidy administered by the state, will be required to scan their fingers on a device at Tiny Tots whenever they bring in the baby or pick her up. Everyone else will just walk right in and out.
“It’s inconvenient, and it’s embarrassing,” said Slaughter, about the verification system the Mississippi Department of Human Services plans to institute statewide to monitor families who receive child care subsidies.
And it’s one more burden on Slaughter’s daughter as she tries to finish school, raise a child, find a job, and become independent.
According to a statement from the Mississippi DHS, the finger-scanning system – by improving the accuracy of attendance figures and cutting administrative costs – “will maximize federal dollars” so that more children can be served.
But child care providers and advocates predict the new system will have exactly the opposite effect. They believe the cost and disruption of the gate-keeping system will reduce the number of centers willing to accept federal child care vouchers.
A class action lawsuit filed last month in Mississippi by a low-income parent argues that being required to scan her finger at the child care center when other parents don’t is an invasion of privacy, and that requiring her to submit a finger scan when she has done nothing wrong, is an unreasonable search and seizure.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi is researching the legality of the finger scans as well.
“My gut tells me there is a problem,” said Bear Atwood, legal director for the ACLU in Mississippi.
Child Care Advocates Watching
Louisiana is the only other state in the nation requiring finger-scans of low-income parents at day care centers.
Marjorie Esman, executive director at the ACLU in Louisiana, has deep concerns about finger scans.
“We don’t treat people like criminals when they have done nothing wrong,” she said. “Government doesn’t need to keep a record of the fingerprints of innocent people.”
And around the country, child care rights advocates watching Mississippi say the finger scanning policy is troubling.
“If the goal is fraud prevention and efficiency, then there are certainly lots of ways to do that without requiring biometrics,” said Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center, in San Francisco.
“Just because parents are poor, they still have the same privacy rights, and they have the right to choose who picks up their children from child care without having to submit them for fingerprinting,” she said.
“For undocumented families this will provide a real barrier to child care. That would be a huge issue for us in California,” said Kruckel.
The Mississippi policy change comes just as President Barack Obama is calling for access to early education for all children.
In his State of the Union address Feb. 12, Obama said, “And for poor kids who need help the most, lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.
He continued, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Mississippi, the poorest state in the country and the state with the highest percentage of children living in poverty, has 8,000 children on its waiting list for subsidized child care, yet child care advocates and providers point out that the state will pay more than $1.6 million a year for the verification system.
“There is no evidence that fraud is a problem in the child care program,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.
“In addition, it is really hard for parents to get vouchers in Mississippi,” she said. “It’s a cumbersome process; it requires extensive documents and is unnecessarily complicated.”
Telephone calls and emails from Equal Voice to Mississippi DHS Director Jill Dent and department spokeswoman Julia Bryan requesting more details were not returned.
According to a statement from the department, when the finger image is scanned, points from the image are converted into a number that becomes a personal identification number (PIN) which identifies the person that can check the child in or out.
Fear Losing Child Care
The huge waiting list for child care vouchers in the state puts pressure on parents to comply with the voucher program’s requirements, but they say the rules display little understanding about the lives of poor families, many of whom juggle multiple jobs and schedules, making use of a circle of friends and family to care for their children.
“I have six kids, and we all play a role in my grandbaby’s life. We all pick her up or drop her off,” said Janice Slaughter. “Now we all have to have our fingerprints on file with the state.”
Friends who might have been willing to lend a hand will draw the line at being fingerprinted, she said. “It’s an inconvenience for everyone trying to do my daughter a favor,” she added.
In Mississippi, child care providers who serve low-income families and parents are fighting back, first with public meetings with state officials, then filing a lawsuit and urging legislators to block the program
The latest lawsuit was filed in January by Elizabeth Williams, a low-income parent who is afraid she will lose her child care subsidy if she refuses the finger scanning.
A 23-year-old college student at Mississippi State University, she relies on her mother to drop off and pick up her son from child care. Her mother doesn’t want to be subjected to finger scanning.
“We lead the nation in children who are undereducated; now we want to punish those parents because they have a need for child care assistance? It doesn’t make sense,” said attorney Lisa Ross, representing Williams.
Louisiana has required finger-scanning for subsidized child care since 2010. Owners of child care centers say it has cost them business.
Despite the concerns of parents, child advocates, and child care providers, the state is moving forward and plans to implement the system in 400 centers statewide by the end of February.
“It’s really quite troubling on so many fronts,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “It has a clear chilling effect on family access to child care. Child care is so important for low-income mothers.
“These moms are trying so hard, and this seems so punitive,” said Blank. “It’s hard to say what part of this is the most outrageous. In general, low-income people are already so intimidated by bureaucracy – this takes it to another level.
“Other states have managed to do fine without resorting to finger scans. There must be other solutions.”
In fact, there are other solutions: Some states issue debit cards for parents to swipe when they arrive and depart. Others use an electronic sign-in pad.
Heavy Burden on Providers
In Mississippi, parents who receive child care vouchers will be required to attend an hour or two of training and have their fingers scanned into the system at a central office. The office is open only during regular business hours, which means parents will have to take time off from work or miss classes.
The child care centers are burdened with onerous requirements as well.
Each child care owner who accepts vouchers will be required to put a $900 deposit on the electronic finger scanners and open a bank account so that reimbursements can be automatically deposited or withdrawn.
Petra Kay, owner of Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, took part in the pilot finger-scan verification program, but has decided to opt out of it because of the fear and disruption it caused among her clients, not to mention the $9,000 she says the state owes for care provided that the finicky scanners did not record.
When the finger-scan verification system is implemented statewide, Kay will no longer be able to accept child care vouchers at the center.
“It looks like the state is trying to close down the industry of child care,” she said.
Kay said the pilot program frustrated and frightened parents, and attendance of low-income children at Northtown plummeted from 140 to 80 children. In response, Kay had to cut staff at the center she has run for 30 years.
“Low-income parents are struggling with so much; to lose their child care assistance can be devastating,” Kay said.
“We are dealing with people that need as much help as possible. They are fearful. Every time the government gets involved in their life, it goes upside down. These are poor, single parents; they are afraid. They have everything to lose.”
2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper