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Licensing Requirements

Although each state has specific and unique requirements for licensing ECE programs, the 2015 Caring for our Children Basics guidance describes the minimum health and safety standards that should be part of the licensing process. Caring for our Children Basics is now tied to the new Head Start Program Performance Standards and the Child Care and Development Fund Final Rule. These rules require ACF block grant licensed providers and Head Start programs to have a pre-licensure and annual inspection for compliance with health, safety, and fire standards [5].

Although Caring for our Children Basics covers a range of potential hazards that need to be considered, it takes time for new guidance to gain traction. The 50 State Child Care Licensing Study, 2011–2013 edition, found that only about half the states have some type of environmental health inspections [14]. The study defines environmental inspection as “an inspection of licensed settings conducted by the health department or similar entity for compliance with the state and municipal environmental health codes and laws” [14].

These inspections are critical to protecting children from many types of hazards, including fires, injuries, poisonings, and infectious disease. Unfortunately, this definition of environmental inspection is often too vague to catch many potential problems, e.g., presence of a nearby drycleaner, caused by the location of an ECE program. Licensing requirements often do not include a broader consideration of chemical contaminants in the environment and conditions at or nearby a site where an ECE program will be located.

In 2015, the Environmental Law Institute reviewed the child care licensing requirements of all 50 states. It found that some states have requirements for inspections for specific chemical contaminants such as lead-based paint, radon, and asbestos. However, across the country, most ECE programs are not required to conduct a site history, environmental audit, or any other type of environmental assessment to obtain a license [19]. As of 2015, only two states, New Jersey and New York, had specific language in their regulations that required locations for ECE programs be chosen with consideration for environmental hazards. Several other states had general provisions prohibiting health or environmental hazards in the area [19]. Most requirements were not specifically targeted at assessing and preventing environmental exposures to children that might occur because of the location of an ECE program.

ECE program providers follow licensing requirements and frequently go beyond those requirements to keep children safe. However, many environmental issues are not under the direct control of the ECE program provider, and providers might not be aware of past or nearby sources of contamination. When ECE programs are placed in, on, or near hazardous sites, the cause is usually a lack of awareness about the past use and nearby uses of ECE program locations, or the hazards caused by such past or nearby uses.

When an ECE facility is being built, moved, or licensed, ask the following questions:

“What was the site before it was an ECE program?”

“What type of businesses are adjacent to this ECE program?”

“What are the nearby environmental conditions?”