Monday, April 30, 2012

Rural after-school program runs afoul of Colorado law

Karen Auge reports in today's Denver Post on the struggle of some after-school programs to comply with state law, in large part because the regulations for such programs are "all based on metro areas."

The dateline is Wiggins, Colorado, population 838, in nonmetropolitan Morgan County, in the state's eastern plains.  Morgan County's population is 28,159, and its poverty rate is 14.6%.  But Auge's story suggests that poverty rate is deceptively low.  She describes the "slice of the prairie" that is Morgan County as "second only to Denver as the toughest place in the state to grow up, according to this year's statewide Kids County report."  The story continues:  
In a side-by-side comparison of the state's 25 most populous counties, the report, released by the Colorado Children's Campaign, found that Morgan County leads the state in the rate of births to mothers who don't have a high school diploma.  
The county is also one of two with the highest rate of obese children.

It is in this socio-economic context that Jodi Walker launched a free after-school program two years ago. She calls it Kids at Their Best and runs it out of the Wiggins Fire Hall.  She says it was "supposed to be something for kids in the grip of poverty to do in the afternoon besides sit at home alone or roam unsupervised.  The goal was to expose them to a little art, help them find something to aspire to."

But Walker's efforts run afoul of a range of state regulations, even some that were recently modified to respond to her situation.  Even the state's interim director of child care acknowledges:
It's hard to have programs for children in rural communities, for a lot of reasons.  It's expensive; there are not enough children.
Walker does not want to be a licensed child-care provider because they have to comply with a range of rules designed to keep kids safe, including the monitoring of staffing levels, building design and hygiene.  But Walker doesn't have paid staff; she relies on volunteers, given that her annual budget is just about $25,000, from grants and private donations.  Plus, the kids who drop in at Walker's program range from age 5 to 12 or 13, older than the toddlers and pre-schoolers who populate child care centers.

State officials agreed in 2010 that Walker didn't fit into any licensing category, but they thought she would fit into a category being created in new legislation:  neighborhood youth organization.

In the end, however, the legislation included a provision that limits the category to facilities that kids drop into and leave on their own (think Boys and Girls Clubs), and which excludes facilities where parents drop off and pick up their kids.  Needless to say, given the spatial and transportation realities of a place like Wiggins, this prevents licensing for Walker's facility.

This strikes me as a great example of the sort of presumably unintended consequence of legislation that could be avoided if lawmakers engaged in "rural-proofing," a practice used in Australia and New Zealand to consider the consequences of laws in and on rural communities--before those laws are passed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just an update to this story- Kids At Their Best HAS indeed received their Neighborhood Youth Organization designation after a ferocious battle between state agencies.