Developments in child care policy at the MN Department of Human Services

By Marnie Werner, Vice President, Research & Operations

Click here to read the main article, “Rural Child Care Solutions: From the Ground Up.”

While communities have been learning how to get together and figure out solutions for their local child care needs, at the state level, the MN Department of Human Services has also been working on solutions to issues holding back child care development in the state, and they are recruiting stakeholders from rural communities specifically to get input on many of these projects.

“DHS has been learning through the pandemic,” says Bharti Wahi, deputy assistant commissioner for the Children and Family Services division of DHS. They were working on these issues before the pandemic, says Wahi, but some of the flexibilities in the rules that were put in place during the pandemic have made it easier to explore solutions, as has the large amount of federal money the department received through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA), Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. Some of the initiatives to address these issues include:

  • Child Care Stabilization Grants, distributing $304.4 million in direct payments to child care providers, with the requirement that at least 70% of the base grant go to provide increased compensation, benefits, or premium pay to employees, helpers, and owner/operators (including family child care operators). Of these funds, $70.5 million has been set aside for grants targeted to programs experiencing extreme financial hardship. The federal funding for this program ends in June 2023.
  • Child Care Wayfinder, a one-stop source of technical assistance for providers recently launched by DHS and Child Care Aware of MN. Local Child Care Navigators located across the state help both existing providers and those who are thinking about becoming providers, connecting them with coaches who can advise them on things like regulations, business aspects, and grant and loan programs. childcarewayfinder.org/
  • Improved communication. Counties are responsible for licensing family child care programs in Minnesota. The licensing division of DHS holds monthly meetings with county licensors and county licensing supervisors to answer questions, provide technical assistance, and update them on new information they can then pass on to family child care providers.
  • Regulatory modernization. DHS has begun a major review of the state’s more-than-30-year-old child care regulations, with the goal of eventually seeing them overhauled by the state legislature. Working with the National Association for Regulatory Administration (NARA), they will look at each of the current regulations to judge their effectiveness and necessity. Pilot projects will help determine how DHS might implement some of these changes. More information can be found at DHS’s Child Care Regulation Modernization site. Some of this modernization includes:
    • A “risk-based” tiered violation system that will differentiate violations, dividing them into tiers of severity based on the level of risk the violation poses to children. This is something providers have been requesting for a long time, says Alyssa Dotson, licensing division director within the Office of Inspector General. “There’s a difference between missed data on a form and a safe sleep violation,” she says.
    • Key indicator system for abbreviated inspections. Instead of a full inspection every year, which can take up to two days, providers who meet the right criteria could qualify for abbreviated inspections in the future. Abbreviated inspections use a subset of standards known as “key indicators” that statistically predict compliance with the full list of standards. How well a provider complies with those key indicators gives a reasonably predictable picture of how well they are complying with standards overall. DHS will use methodology developed by NARA and input from stakeholders to determine which licensing standards should be used to determine when a provider is eligible for an abbreviated inspection, but the criteria may include length of time in business and history of compliance with regulations. This type of system has been tested and researched in other states with success, says Dotson.
    • Revised Licensing Standards. DHS and NARA will work with stakeholders to develop revised child care licensing standards. The development of these standards will be informed by the work on the risk-based tiered violation system and the key indicator analysis.
  • Alternative licensing project. DHS is contracting with Wilder Research to explore how other states do licensing to see if other models exist that could be used successfully here. This project involves input from various stakeholders, including counties and child care providers, to review child care models that are currently not allowed under state statute. “This is the one that I think might have more of an impact on capacity building and bringing providers into the field, especially around family child care programs,” says Dotson.
  • Support for family, friends, and neighbors providers. As child care becomes scarcer, families depend more on informal care through their network of family, friends, and neighbors (FFN). DHS is working with a number of organizations to direct $3 million to support new and existing networks of FFN providers by offering training and materials to providers, connecting providers to services and resources, and introducing them to the option of becoming legally non-licensed (LNL) providers. As an LNL, they can then register to become eligible for CCAP reimbursement.
  • Provider Hub. DHS is working on a web-based data portal that should streamline the process providers use to apply for and renew licenses, submit a registration for CCAP, and report changes to the agency, improving their experience.
  • MN Benefits and Help Me Connect are two online tools being rolled out that families can use to apply for an array of services and programs. Streamlining this front-end access issue for families can also help providers, since they often help guide families on where to go to access services.
  • Understanding the whole family system is a multi-year statewide study to better understand community needs with the goal of learning how to build effective collaborations at the local level and how the state can then change its system to foster that.
  • Facility revitalization grants. DHS is working with First Children’s Finance to roll out $22.5 million in grants to help Minnesota providers with minor (not major) renovations and capital improvements to their facilities. These grants began rolling out in April, 2022.