(Updated at 5:55 p.m.) Arlington County has taken a proposed update to its child care regulations off its website after County Board members called the inclusion of certain controversial provisions “troubling.”
As ARLnow.com first reported Monday, the most recent draft of the child care regulations would have required child care centers to encourage mothers to breastfeed and would have dictated what type of milk, juice and birthday treats could be fed to children, among other provisions.
That’s in addition to new staffing and employee education requirements that panicked the operators of small and part-time child care centers, who said such rules would put them out of business or at least drive up the cost of daycare and preschool programs.
“This situation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s really the most troubled roll-out of a county initiative since the ill-conceived and ill-fated Public Land for Public Good,” said County Board member John Vihstadt. “I really think that this is close to an unmitigated disaster. If our goal is to increase the supply and the affordability of child care throughout Arlington County, this in my view seems to do exactly the opposite.”
Anita Friedman, Director of Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services, said the creation of the new regulations is an “iterative” process that has been underway since 2014, with input from directors of child care centers and consultation from a Kentucky-based nonprofit association.
Despite what she described as a positive public outreach process, Friedman acknowledged that there has been “a lot” of negative feedback, particularly from owners of smaller child care centers and the parents who use them.
“There are some issues with the current version,” she told the Board. “In some places, I think, because some of the enthusiasm of the child care centers and our Arlington Way of striving for the best, we may have probably overreached in terms of the best practices that we want to incorporate in there, that don’t belong in the code.”
That didn’t satisfy new County Board member Katie Cristol, who included affordable child care as part of her policy platform. She called the inclusion of some of the provisions “silly season business.”
“At a time when we have young families leaving this county because it costs as much if not more to have your child in daycare as it does to pay rent… I think we have broader concerns than making sure kids have the absolute best environment,” Cristol said.
“This is really troubling to see this level of best practice conflated with code and with regulation,” she continued. “I am not comfortable inserting unbidden county government in encouraging anybody to tell a mother how to feed her child, whether that’s best practice or regulation.”
“Distraction is not a strong enough word for the real issue at play here. We have been hearing loud and clear from members of our community that this undermines trust in government. It exacerbates a sentiment that Arlington is hostile to child care centers and small businesses.”
With County Board members speaking out against the changes, County Manager Mark Schwartz stepped in part-way into the discussion to say that the draft regulations would be taken down from the county website, while the county continues to seek input by other means.
Arlington’s child care ordinance, Chapter 52 of county code, was last updated in 1981 but was mostly written in the 1960s. In 2013, then-County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s budget-cutting proposal to adopt Virginia’s child care regulations and eliminate three county regulators was met with widespread parent outrage. The proposal was eventually scrapped, though Friedman noted that returning to state regulations — which are more up-to-date than Arlington’s current code — is an option the Board could consider.
Friedman said that the next update to Chapter 52 would likely carve out exceptions for small and part-time child care center — by state law, religious-run child care centers are already exempt from local regulation — and would move some of the aspirational “best practice” provisions from county code to perhaps a best practices manual.
County Board Chair Libby Garvey questioned how such provisions made it into even a draft proposal.
“Some [are] upset that anyone thought this was a good idea,” she said. “Some really important judgement kind of wasn’t exercised here. That’s something that was concerning.”
Garvey and other Board members were careful to say that the provisions were well-intentioned, created by “people of goodwill.”
“I think some of them might not have the best judgment, I’m hoping we take care of that,” said Garvey. ‘There’s much to do. This needs to come down for now. Some judgment needs to be exercised before something goes back up.”
Friedman noted that there has been critical coverage of the policy update from ARLnow.com and other media outlets.
“There are a lot of people commenting… and there’s a lot of stuff on ARLnow, God bless them they think they have their pulse on the finger, but they usually don’t say a nice word about most things,” she said.
Both Schwartz and Friedman took responsibility for the botched policy process.
“Let me first apologize to the Board if we have caused you to lose faith in our department or in our ability to carry this through,” Friedman said. “It is not a simple thing to change code, and indeed we went into it somewhat naively and maybe overzealously… I accept full responsibility for this mess.”
Friedman said “we can push larger child care centers to higher achievement because they have the resources” but that her department doesn’t want to leave smaller centers behind. “Some of the overreaching has occurred,” she acknowledged.
“We are appropriately chastened by some of the comments you made,” Schwartz said. “We will get it right.”