Dog kennels are inspected once a year in San Diego County. Restaurants get vetted twice as often. But here and across California, preschools and child care centers can go five years without a checkup from state evaluators — and sometimes even longer.

State inspectors from the Community Care Licensing Division hasten to investigate complaints such as rat infestation and the manhandling of kids within 10 days. Caregivers are supposed to report injuries or other incidents themselves and can get slapped with a citation if they don’t.

But if nobody phones the state agency to tell them something has gone wrong, a preschool or child care center could go years without anyone stopping by to scrutinize if playgrounds are safe, blankets are clean and dangerous criminals aren’t on the payroll. The rules were severely slackened eight years ago. Inspections used to happen annually. Now they can occur just twice a decade.

California inspectors had the highest caseloads nationwide, according to a 2008 study. Sometimes they don’t even make it to preschools or child care programs in those five years.

“Things can really deteriorate. Broken toys. Broken fences. Guns being left out — not deliberately, but people forget,” said Debbie Macdonald, executive director of the YMCA Childcare Resource Service, based in San Diego, which refers parents to preschools and child care providers. “Without another set of eyes saying, ‘You need to change some of these toys out, your bathrooms aren’t clean,’ it’s easy for things to slide by.”

The state has fallen short of a bar that national experts say is perilously low in the first place. A leading industry association recommends that child care programs be visited four times a year, 20 times more often than California requires. It ranked California 50th out of 52 states and districts in child care licensing and oversight in a recent national study.

That means that California children who toddle in preschools or are cared for after school are less protected from undetected lapses in safety than kids elsewhere. While other states and some pilot programs have moved ahead to rating preschools on how well they prep kids for learning, California is still shoring up its basic guarantees that children are at least healthy and safe.

Some programs still get checked on more often: If a preschool or child care program is on probation or faces a pending accusation, it has to be visited annually. Thirty percent of programs are supposed to be visited randomly each year, which means that some centers could be visited two years in a row.

Some centers are also under the umbrella of Head Start or other programs that do added inspections. Cities may require fire inspections from time to time too, bringing in another set of eyes.

And complaints help investigators root out problems that they can’t spot themselves. Last summer, someone complained that a Bay Point State Preschool staffer used duct tape to bind a child’s hands, spurring an investigation. The Point Loma preschool said it planned to remove the employee and retrain others. Complaints elsewhere have found problems like lax supervision and kids being grabbed by the arms.

However, it’s hard to pin down what could be going wrong when inspectors come less frequently, since inspectors aren’t there to see it. Katy Kenshur, past president of the San Diego County Family Child Care Association, said she knows some child care programs have packed in more kids than they should.

“They’re not too worried about it because they don’t think they’ll get caught,” Kenshur said.

The Boys and Girls Club program at Mendoza Elementary in Imperial Beach had gone almost six years without a visit until an inspector stopped by last week and found everything was well.

Its supervisor Rebecca Bazner strained to remember the previous visit, surprised to realize it had been that long.

“All of a sudden I realized years had gone by and there hadn’t been a visit,” Bazner said. She remembered back when she started working in child care, inspectors came every year.

The system eroded with the shaky finances of the Golden State. Up until eight years ago, California was supposed to inspect child care centers annually. That includes preschools, which typically run only part of the day, and child care programs, which may last all day and can include older kids. If someone cared for children in their own home, they were visited every three years.

But the licensing department was falling short. To help it cope with budget woes, lawmakers decided to pare back inspections to where they are today — once every five years.

The department still struggled to meet that new, lower bar. Five years ago, a state audit found it had only done 68 percent of the required and random visits it was supposed to do. Some programs had gone without a visit for so long that none of the same staffers were there when inspectors came back.

“They didn’t even realize they were licensed by us,” said Jeffrey Hiratsuka, deputy director of the Community Care Licensing Division.

The department got temporary help to clean up backlogs a few years ago. But the problems persisted. Hiratsuka estimated the agency made almost all the mandatory inspections that were triggered by complaints last year, but only made about half of the random visits to check in.

Its total budget has actually grown overall during the past decade, from roughly $77 million to $94 million. But the department says it still struggled to keep pace because it faced booming caseloads and gained new responsibilities, such as licensing foster homes. Last year, it estimated it had lost 30 percent of the staff needed to do the required inspections, even after a slight rebound in staffing.

“We’ve sucked the guts out of it,” said Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley. “It’s so rolled back that it feels like, ‘Come on. This is ridiculous.’”

Back when the inspections were first loosened, California put a trigger in place so that if violations went up more than 10 percent, inspectors would make random visits more often. But after violations exceeded that twice, California ended up taking out the trigger, since more inspections just turned up more violations.

A new bill would try to ramp up inspections for preschools and child care centers to once a year. Family homes that provide child care would be visited every other year. It would also crank up monitoring of other facilities that care for foster children or the elderly.

The idea would push through changes that the department was already trying to introduce on its own. Last year in a letter to the Department of Finance, it wrote that “fluctuations in resources have put client health and safety at risk.” Experts believe the change could catapult California from the bottom to near the top in child care inspections. Many preschools say they’d welcome more frequent visits.

“It used to be a routine visit, checking in and seeing if everything is going well,” said Stephanie Alexander, director of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Preschool near the border of La Mesa and San Diego. “Now when we get a visit it feels like they’re looking for something wrong.”

Backers of the bill say the changes wouldn’t cost any more money because inspectors would use a quicker checklist of the most frequent or worrisome violations, only launching a more detailed inspection if they detect a severe problem. Inspectors can still cite any problems they spot. But the idea is to save time by focusing first on big problems, such as poisons in kids’ reach, instead of smaller or more technical ones.

A state legislative committee analysis still found the changes would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” which has put the bill on pause and left its proponents scrambling to show a crucial committee that it won’t cost anything at all.

“It’s just like if you’re driving down the freeway and you know there’s no California Highway Patrol around,” said Donita Stromgren, policy director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “You’re going to speed more.”

Have you had issues with safety or licensing requirements at your preschool or child care center? Do you run a child care program that has been affected by the cutbacks in inspections? Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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