For 14 years, Illinois has subsidized child care for low-income parents trying to work their way out of poverty. According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, the well-intentioned program has a few flaws — notably that it paid an unknown number of sex offenders and convicted violent criminals to babysit the state's most vulnerable citizens. Here's a look at what went wrong in Illinois, and why:
How is the program supposed to work?
The 14-year-old Child Care Assistance Program spends $750 million a year to help more than 150,000 families pay for child care. There are about 70,000 babysitters, split into two categories. Child care providers who watch four or more unrelated kids need a license, which has always entailed an extensive background check, including fingerprint-based searches of criminal registries. The state's 10,000 licensed providers watch about 60 percent of the children in the program, while the other 40 percent are babysat by the 60,000 unlicensed care providers covered by a 2009 law.
What's this 2009 law about?
People convicted of sex crimes and most violent felonies have long been barred from getting paid to babysit, but until a 2009 law mandated better background checks, program administrators relied largely on an incomplete criminal database and self-reporting by applicants. Even still, the 2009 law doesn't apply to care providers who are related to the kids they babysit.
What else went wrong?
It took a year and a half after the new law kicked in for the Department of Children and Family Services to start doing full background checks on potential care providers, the Tribune says. And many longtime babysitters still won't be thoroughly vetted until their cases come up for renewal. Even then, the department won't be able to verify if a state-paid babysitter shares a home with a registered sex offender or violent criminal.
How big of a problem is this?
"It's nearly impossible to determine just how many of the illegal baby-sitting arrangements the state has allowed," say the Tribune's Matthew Walberg and Joe Mahr, but a 2009 state audit found two payments to registered sex offenders, and 83 babysitters who shared an address with a registered sex offender. The Tribune uncovered 126 state-paid babysitters living with parolees this summer, though some of those arrangements are legal.
Have any children been harmed?
The Tribune's investigation "found no cases where children were harmed, although privacy laws shield data needed to do an in-depth study," say Walberg and Mahr. That's only part of the point, says Madeline Holler at Babble. "Paying rapists to watch little kids" is simply "unacceptable," even when "the kids' mother is totally on board with it," as happens sometimes when their preferred babysitter is a relative with a criminal past.
What can we learn from this scandal?
There are just some things "big government" shouldn't get involved with, says David Paulin at American Thinker. Hold on, says Babble's Holler. Programs that allow low-income parents to work are a tremendous help in "breaking the cycle of poverty." But obviously, the Illinois model shows "the limitations of relying on private homes to provide a service for the public good."