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Hot Line Could Post Baby-sitter's Criminal Records

February 18, 1998
By: Nina Paavola
MDN Columbia Bureau

Sally McDowell did not know her Columbia baby-sitter had a history of child abuse and neglect.

She says, "I did lots of comparisons, I did drop-by visits and I called for references. In our case, references were not enough."

Her family paid a price because they didn't have all the information.

The state convicted Joanne Palmer of involuntary manslaughter last year in the death of McDowell's child.

He was one of two Columbia infants who died in Palmer's care.

Now, the Missouri senate is considering legislation that would create a child-care hot line in hopes that other children will be safer.

State Senator J.B. "Jet" Banks says, "With this bill, one has the opportunity to know who their baby-sitters are."

The St. Louis Democrat hopes to provide parents with their child-care worker's criminal record.

The health department would set up the hot line and run background checks on participating child-care workers.

Then, anyone could call and check a registered care-giver for a history of child abuse or neglect.

The state would require registration from every child-care worker who is part of a licensed program.

And care-givers employed by the state would participate in the hot line, too. That means at least one-thousand child care workers across the state.

In California, state legislation established a similar hot line in 1992 called the TrustLine.

Cindy Swanson, program manager of TrustLine, says their registry contains more than 25-thousand child-care workers...and it receives an average of 20 calls every day.

Swanson says so far, the TrustLine is successful, and child-care providers are responding positively but she says the TrustLine also works as a deterrent for offenders.

She says, "The two things that we've seen happen are that they screen themselves out, by withdrawing from the business of child care, or they become more honest, offering information about themselves."

The service costs the state money...the state pays hot line fees for the child-care providers it employs.

In Missouri, Banks says neither the state nor the taxpayers would pay for the hot line. The costs would be self-contained...the child-care workers would pay a fee to participate each year.

Maryann Pabst is the project director at Child Care Connection in Columbia.

She says, "This sounds like a step in the right direction. It's important that we don't have people who have no business caring for children in those positions."

Pabst is part of the state's program that helps parents find child care.

She says the hot line could work, as long as it goes along with the existing program.

However, she says one major problem in the child-care community is that parents are not aware of many existing resources and awareness is the first step towards safer child care.

She says, "The burden always rests on the parents' shoulder to make a good decision...but parents must have the right tools and information."

McDowell says the hot line could be one way for parents to make safer decisions when it comes to finding a child-care provider.

But she says the hot line must come with publicity that lets parents know they can call.

Swanson says the TrustLine is launching a publicity campaign this spring. They will advertise on radio and television with public service announcements.

She says they tell parents about the hot line service early on...at gynecology offices, Lamaze classes and at the pediatrician's office.

She says, "When you're first having the baby, we're sending the information home in a packet from the hospital."

McDowell says any informational resource like the hot line is good, but she says, "I think it's going to take community awareness to make it work."

The state senate is now debating the hot line legislation.