More than 400 Alabama church-affiliated child care centers will come under state inspections for the first time, despite faith-based exemptions for child care licensure.

New regulations have been added to President Obama's reauthorization of the Child Care and Developmental Block Grant, designed to help low-income working parents pay for child care. Among them: annual inspections for all child care centers that accept children who receive the subsidies. Unlicensed centers not serving children receiving subsidies are not affected.

"This is very good news for parents because they will have the assurance that any day care they choose will have all the proper inspections and peace of mind that the environment is safe," said Jacquie Osborne, president of Northwest Alabama Smart Start. "Until now, unlicensed centers could take children who are eligible for child care subsidies, and as a taxpayer, you have to object."

Currently, the Alabama Department of Human Resources inspects 1,019 licensed child care centers to ensure they follow a lengthy list of rules including appropriate background checks for employees, adequate child-to-staff ratios, appropriate square footage for classrooms and building safety.

Of Alabama's 882 centers that are exempt from state licensure due mainly to affiliation with a church or nonprofit religious school, 440 of them have children who have received subsidies and would be subject to the new regulations.

The block grant program paid about $75 million in child care subsidies to about 30,000 Alabama children in fiscal year 2014. About 10,000 of those children were in exempt centers.

Barry Spear, public information director for the state Department of Human Resources, reiterated the new rules apply only to those centers accepting students who receive subsidies. He stressed the law doesn't call for licensure of those facilities, just inspections.

"There could be a different set of specifications called for with these centers," Spear said. "The details of the inspection called for by the new law will be determined by the Department of Health and Human Services. The changes likely won't go into effect until the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2015."

Spear said the new rules are strictly for the enforcement of greater safety standards.

"Federally mandated background checks on all day care employees is just the right thing to do," he said.

The centers getting paid for subsidized children will have to have federally mandated background checks.

Maurice McCaney, chancellor of Victory Christian Fellowship school and day care in Florence, said he has not been notified of any changes or state intervention taking place at his school, but some children do attend who receive subsidies from the Child Care Management Agency, which distributes the grant funds.

He said he doesn't want unnecessary state intervention for fear that ultimately unwanted rules would be imposed that could compromise the school's Christian basis and purpose.

"We do comply with licensing requirements, with fire and safety inspections and on occasion we have health department inspections," said McCaney, who also serves as the center's attorney. "We certainly want the safest center possible. We'll just have to see what the new rules entail."

Alabama is one of only 12 states that allow for faith-based exemptions for child care licensing. State DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner said more employees will be needed to implement the new rules, which will be phased in over the next few years.

Ebba Mears, whose Kids Club Early Child Care and Education Academy in Florence has been state licensed since it opened in 1997, said the new regulations are a start, but she wants to see it expand to every day care center in the state.

"There are more unlicensed centers in our area than licensed, and if they'd make the law applicable across the board, the whole state would improve," Mears said.

She said the Lauderdale County Children's Policy Council has been working to educate parents on the importance of child care center licensure and what it provides for children.

"We found that many parents simply don't know," she said. "These new rules will make for a more level playing field for child care centers."

Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or Follow on Twitter @TD_LSRichkman.

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