When Tom Lawson of Irvine started trying to find day care for his son Christopher, now 22 months old, he and his wife went through the same steps most parents do, asking friends and agencies for referrals, checking out ads, visiting day-care homes and interviewing providers.
But then Lawson took an extra step. As the owner of Apscreen, a Newport Beach-based employment screening company, Lawson conducts background checks on job applicants for corporate clients. So he decided to put his prospective day-care providers through the same process.
After narrowing the candidates to four, he asked each of them to fill out a form, disclosing their Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, previous addresses and other information, authorizing the investigation with their signatures. All agreed.
"The first one turned out to have 10 lawsuits against her and a history of flaking out on bills," Lawson says. The second had been divorced twice--"a possible sign of instability," Lawson says--and was sued for assault by her first husband years ago after she allegedly hit him with an umbrella, he says, although the case never went to trial.
The computers came up blank on the third candidate, with no reports favorable or negative. "It turned out she was an illegal alien," Lawson says.
The fourth prospect, however, had an impeccable record, right down to her credit card payments. She was licensed, her house seemed clean and safe, and her approach to discipline was compatible with the Lawsons' own. "So we went with her--Christopher was 7 months old then--and we've never had any problems," Lawson says.
"The background check wasn't the only basis for our decision," he says. "We just had a good feeling about her, and we backed it up with the background check. That made us a lot less nervous about leaving our child in someone else's hands."
After talking with other parents who liked the idea of screening day-care providers' backgrounds, Lawson decided to found Carecheck, a sister company to Apscreen, specializing exclusively in child-care screenings.
For $25 to more than $250, depending on how many areas are investigated, Carecheck will look into a prospective provider's criminal history, driving history, credit history, and trace his or her Social Security number, state license, call references, and search for any complaints or lawsuits on file.
But first, the provider must fill out and sign the form. And many of them may be reluctant to do so, according to members of the Orange County Day Care Assn.
"I myself can stand any scrutiny they want to screen me with," says Mary Strong, a licensed in-home day-care provider in Westminster and the inland area vice president of the association. "But I'm not going to spend my time filling out multiple forms. I already did that when I got my license." Providers are screened for criminal backgrounds as well as other factors as part of the state licensing process, although their credit history is not checked.
Strong says she also does not want to reveal her Social Security and driver's license numbers. "With a Social Security number, you can tap into anybody's background," she says. "I remember I was applying for something once and didn't have all the information I needed for the form, and the man told me: 'That's OK, as long as I have your Social Security number, I can probably tell you what you had for breakfast this morning.' "
If a parent did ask her to fill out a form such as the one used by Carecheck, Strong says, "I would tell them frankly that I am not above using it, but if there is information that I feel is not applicable, I will not fill it in."
Strong says she and other providers understand that parents can be apprehensive. But they prefer to offer other forms of reassurance, such as the National Family Day Care Assn.'s accreditation program.
"It's much more demanding than the state license," she says. Both an association representative and a parent not associated with the home being inspected spend a day observing the day-care home in operation, then "they both fill out a 190-question form," Strong says. "You have to give them evidence of all the classes, seminars and workshops you've attended, and a written assessment of your program. It costs $150 just to go through."
Valerie Breen of Costa Mesa, the day-care association's coastal area vice president, says she would not cooperate with a screening such as Carecheck's.
"I don't have a criminal record, don't have any lawsuits against me, and--well, nobody's credit's perfect, but mine's OK. But parents don't need to know about my personal life.
"If somebody gave me one of those forms, I'd suggest they try to find someone they could work with," she says. "I won't do it. I probably wouldn't take their child. To me, there's just no reason for it."
Lawson concedes that "as an overview, it might seem kind of Big Brother-ish. But people have the right to know about their child-care providers."
If negative information does turn up on the report, Lawson says, "that doesn't necessarily need to eliminate that person as a candidate. But it does open the door for dialogue."
And Lawson argues that such things as credit history are not irrelevant. "If someone doesn't pay their bills, that's a powerful responsibility attitude indicator," he says.
Breen disagrees. "It's none of anybody's business whether a day-care provider pays her MasterCard on time or not," she says. "Even if they are on the verge of bankruptcy, what does it matter if they're providing good care?"
If parents do background checks on providers, Breen suggests, maybe the providers should reciprocate. "I might say, 'I'll fill one (form) out if you will," she says.
"Parents can be unscrupulous, too," says Strong.
Whatever information he provides, Lawson says the parent must make the ultimate decision. "I'm just a question-answerer," he says. "Not a decision-maker."