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Licensure rules are governed by each state and may differ, but some themes are common to all states. Day care centers are always required to maintain a license with the state. Family childcare homes will require licensure based on the number of children and families that are cared for. In some states, family caregivers must undergo the licensure process if they are providing care for more than one family. In other states, the licensure process is required when care is provided for three or more families.

While each state assigns the child care licensure process to a different division of their government, the task is generally performed either by a "children and families division" or by an overall licensing division that handles all types of licensure for a particular state.

While conditions for obtaining and maintaining licensure will be slightly different in each care setting and in each state, generally the licensure process includes an onsite evaluation of the facility, and specific ongoing requirements that providers must meet in order to remain licensed. The areas that are generally looked at during the licensure process and that are most often governed by state statutes are:

  • Guidelines for teacher, assistant teacher, aide, volunteer, and substitute positions. States regulate the type of educational background necessary to work in different staff positions, and often, the number of supervised hours that each type of staff must have completed.
  • Staff Ratios and Group Sizes. States regulate the number of staff that must be present in relation to the number of children onsite, as well as the total number of children that are permitted in the facility/home.
  • Equipment, Materials, and Physical Space. States regulate the equipment in use at the facility, including things such as cribs, cots, tables, and chairs, the safety of available toys, and the amount of physical space available for the children, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Food Guidelines. States regulate the types of food that are permitted, the number of meals that must occur based on the number of hours a child is present, and the nutritional guidelines that must be followed in preparing meals and snacks.

  • Nap time Guidelines. States set standards for the type of nap time equipment available and the age appropriateness of equipment such as cribs, cots, and mats. Behavior Guidelines. States regulate the discipline procedures, which may be used on children and the types of interactions staff may have with the children.
  • Exclusion of Sick Children. States set the guidelines for when a child is too sick to be present in the center or home and will also define the types of communicable diseases that must be reported to the state, and procedures for reporting occurrences to the related state agency. The state may also regulate the procedures for allowing medication on the premises and when staff are permitted to administer medication to a child.
  • Personnel and Child Records. The state may determine the types of information that must be contained in both staff and child records. For staff, this may include proof of degrees or continuing education, background checks, and references. For children, this is most often immunization records, doctors’ notes from illnesses, emergency contacts, relevant medical information, and record of care and performance/development at the center or home.
  • Reporting Guidelines. In addition to the sick child guidelines, as above, states will mandate reporting policies regarding concerns of child abuse or neglect and will spell out step-by-step processes a provider must follow in making such reports.
  • Safety. In addition to regulating the safety of the toys and equipment available to children, as mentioned above, the state will also look at things such as fire exits (multiple ways out of the building), severe weather and fire drills, and the placement of fire extinguishers and other safety equipment in the building.
  • Professional Development. States will generally set requirements concerning the number of continuing education hours that a provider must take each year. Mandated topics can include health and safety education such as first aid/CPR and child development topics.
  • Pets/Animals. For both centers and family care homes, states will generally set guidelines concerning the types of animals that are allowed to be present around children, as well as the storage of food and cleaning of cages.

While not all states are as stringent about the licensure process as others, particularly when it comes to family care settings, a parent can generally feel confident that a licensed facility will provide a safe environment for his or her child. Just because a particular center is licensed, however, doesn't mean that parents should not thoroughly do their own research before choosing a particular facility.

It is a good idea for parents to personally check the validity of the license for any facility they are seriously considering. This website ( posts guidelines for each state. Parents can check each state’s homepage for ways to verify the license of a particular provider they may be considering and to examine any past claims or citations that may have been filed against that facility.

There can be tax advantages for using a licensed facility for child care if an employer participates in a Section 125 plan (also known as a “flexible spending” plan). Such plans allow a parent to have money deducted from his or her paycheck on a pre-tax basis and then submit a reimbursement form and proof of day care costs. The money is then paid back to the parent to cover documented child care expenses. This arrangement allows parents to not pay taxes on the money they spend for child care. An employers' human resources or payroll department should be able to give a parent information on this type of company program.