TX Kids Counting on Next DFPS Leader to Make Key Licensing Improvements

For parents, business leaders, policymakers, and other Texans who want to make sure our state’s children are on a path to succeed, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is a critical partner.

When a new DFPS Commissioner takes over for retiring Commissioner John Specia, he or she will not only lead CPS through a court-ordered overhaul. This year, the new commissioner will also oversee the department’s once-every-six-years update to child care licensing standards, meaning he or she will have a critical opportunity to put in place stronger standards to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of kids in licensed child care and foster care group homes across the state.

Here’s how DFPS can ensure more Texas children are on the right track:

Improve Child-to-Caregiver Ratios in Child Care Centers to Strengthen Early Learning and Child Safety

The majority of young children in Texas spend much of their early, formative experiences in child care outside the home. DFPS is responsible for making sure licensed child care centers are safe and high-quality. Yet, the current child-to-caregiver ratios and group sizes allowed under the state’s minimum standards do not adequately safeguard children physically, emotionally, or developmentally.

For example, DFPS standards allow a single child care teacher to care for 15 three-year-olds or 11 two-year-olds, far exceeding recommended best practices.

A teacher responsible for that many young children could spend most of the day simply taking kids to the bathroom or changing diapers. In these child care settings, there’s little to no opportunity for caregivers to provide the individualized attention that children need during this critical stage of social, emotional, and cognitive development. In a setting with small group sizes, on the other hand, children will be more likely to ask questions, explore, exercise their natural curiosity, and develop warm relationships with their caregiver.

Allowing such large group sizes also puts the safety of children in jeopardy. The 2015 Sunset Commission staff report states that the third most frequently repeated violation in child care centers – and one of the highest risk violations – was that a "caregiver at a day care operation failed to adequately supervise children.” A recent analysis looking at the relationship between serious incidents and child-to-caregiver ratios in licensed child care centers in the 13-county Gulf Coast Region found:

  • Texas child care centers that voluntarily implemented child-to-caregiver ratios better than Texas’ minimum standards had, on average, 41 percent fewer reported serious incidents (e.g., death of a child, serious harm caused by abuse or neglect, inappropriate restraint, serious accidental injury); and
  • Child care centers that only met minimum DFPS ratio standards had an above average rate of serious incidents.

We encourage DFPS to support early childhood development and safety by working with child care providers to develop and phase in new minimum standards for these ratios.

Bolster Child Care Nutrition and Physical Activity Standards

When parents are working hard to steer their children towards healthy foods and away from unhealthy ones, they want to make sure their child care providers are supporting – and not undermining – those efforts. The same goes for the health care providers, policymakers, and others working to promote healthy eating and physical activity and reduce childhood obesity. With about one third of Texan children ages two to five considered either overweight or obese,child care providers are a vital partner in supporting healthy and active kids.

The decisions that DFPS makes this year regarding nutrition and physical activity standards for child care centers will help determine the extent to which healthier foods are made available and promoted and the extent to which young children, in close partnership with families, develop healthy eating and exercise habits.

A new CDC prevention report shows that, as compared to other states, Texas ranks far below average when it comes to incorporating high-impact obesity prevention standards in child care licensing regulations. Indeed, Texas’ child care licensing standards include merely 13 of the 47 components that the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education has identified as having a significant impact on obesity prevention in the child care setting (this includes standards related to television viewing, physical activity, and infant feeding).

There’s growing recognition that early childhood is key to preventing childhood obesity. The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), for example, recently announced a grant opportunity to support efforts by child care centers and community organizations to improve nutrition and exercise among three to five year-olds (Applications are due by April 14). These grants can be used to support innovative activities in child care centers like garden-based learning, menu improvements, and modifications to outside learning areas to increase physical activity. In addition, we recently blogged about a new Robert Wood Johnson report on the connection between the first 1,000 days – the time during pregnancy until a child turns two – and childhood obesity later in life.

We encourage DFPS to join efforts to support young children’s health by establishing stronger nutrition and physical activity minimum standards for child care and ensuring that the training for child care providers includes ways to incorporate healthy approaches into kids’ menus and daily learning activities.

Provide Guidance on Nutrition and Physical Activity in Residential Child Care Licensing Standards

In addition to child day care licensing, DFPS oversees licensing of residential child care facilities, such as foster care group homes. Children and youth in foster care are at a high risk for obesity due to their history of trauma. In many cases, youth experience multiple housing placements, many of which provide limited access to healthy food, nutrition education, and opportunities to participate in sports or other forms of exercise. As the "parent” of these children, the state has a particular responsibility to support their health.

Currently, Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) minimum standards do not provide guidance to providers on how to support a child’s healthy eating, nutrition, and exercise. As DFPS revises RCCL minimum standards, it should require licensed providers to meet USDA Nutrition Guidelines and the CDC Youth Physical Activity Guidelines, which ensure proper nutrition, selection of low-fat snacks, appropriate exercise and physical activity habits, and monitoring of television viewing.

Likewise, foster parents must be equipped with the information and resources they need to promote healthy eating and meet the unique nutritional, emotional, and physical needs of foster children. One of DFPS’ stated goals for FY 2016 is to maximize the well-being of foster youth by ensuring these children receive adequate services to meet their physical and behavioral needs. Making sure caregivers receive appropriate training regarding nutritious foods and physical activity – including as part of pre-service and annual training for caregivers – is a key step towards achieving this goal.

We encourage DFPS to help prevent childhood obesity among children in foster care by establishing strong standards for both residential child care and foster parents.

The Process Ahead for the Next DFPS Commissioner

Over the next year, DFPS will:

  • Publish the proposed rule changes in the Texas Register in August 2016;
  • Receive public comments on proposed revisions from August to September 2016; and
  • Adopt new rules in January 2017 to go into effect in March of 2017.

Proposed revisions to the child care and RCCL minimum standards can still be submitted via email to: MSC@dfps.state.tx.us.

We look forward to working with our early education, child nutrition, and child protection partners on these and other critical issues and will share updates throughout the process.