Washington places a high premium on protecting the health and safety of the children who live within its boundaries. As part of that responsibility, the state has several rules and regulations for childcare
Those who care for children know how much trust parents and guardians place in the people who care for their children. Rumors or suggestions of misconduct can detrimentally impact a provider's business and reputation.
If and when rules and regulations are incorrectly applied or interpreted, childcare providers may find their careers at risk. Even rumors that a child may not be safe or protected in a provider's care can negatively impact a provider's career and their relationships with families.
Whether you work in Spokane, Issaquah, Bainbridge Island, or Kennewick, the Professional License Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm can help you navigate licensing issues and investigations. We help childcare providers protect their careers and their reputations. If and when you face allegations of misconduct, contact us by phone or fill out a form.
Overview and Types of Child Care Licenses
Washington has approximately 6,000 childcare centers. The state divides up these centers by type, and each type has its own licensing requirements.
In Washington, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) handles licensing of child-care centers. The rules and standards for child care can be found in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). The vast majority of regulations of childcare centers come from the state level.
While providers should check with their local government to make sure the area does not have rules or regulations above state law, in general, there's little difference between different regions and cities. Whether a provider is in Olympia, Bellingham, or Pullman, they will likely follow the same licensing and compliance requirements.
Child Care Categories
Washington has three categories for licensed programs:
- Family home early learning program
- Child care center early learning program
- School-age program
Family home early learning programs are hosted in the licensee's residence for 12 or fewer children. These programs can provide either child care or educational services.
Child care center early learning programs are facilities that provide care for babies, toddlers, and children from birth to age 12. These centers provide care less than 24 hours a day. Those interested in early learning programs must complete both modules of an online course, and all applicants must complete a background check.
School-age programs are facilities for children from five through 12 years old. They provide care when a child is not in school. These programs provide care less than 24 hours a day. Those interested in becoming a school-aged provider must attend a webinar orientation.
The state divides provider's staffing requirements into three general categories:
- Pre-Service & Hiring Requirements
- Education Requirements
- Training Requirements
Outdoor Nature-Based Programs
Beginning in 2021, Washington expanded its licensing options to include programs designed to include programs that focus on spending time outside and at least half the day with nature-based programming. Washington is the first state to create a special category for these programs, known as Outdoor Nature-Based Programs (ONB), and they can be targeted to preschool and/or elementary school children.
Providers interested in ONB programs need to be aware of the differences between ONB and more traditional care options. ONB has its own staffing and training requirements.
When You Do Not Need a License
Providers should not simply assume they do not need a license. Washington has requirements for when a license is not required, and failing to meet those requirements could result in being investigated as an unlicensed childcare center.
In Washington, the following types of centers do not need a license:
- Informal Parenting Cooperatives
- Care provided by family, friends, and neighbors (FFN)
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends can provide care without a license.
If FFN wish to qualify for Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) subsidy payments, while they do not need a license, they will need to meet certain requirements. All applicants for a WCCC subsidy must provide care to the child in the child's home within Washington State. In other words, a Washington resident living in Vancouver who provides child care to a relative living in Portland will not qualify for the subsidy.
Some FFN providers will have to attend health and safety training and agree to an annual health and safety visit to qualify for the subsidy. While this requirement generally applies to friends, neighbors, and cousins,
FFN providers should check to make sure they are in compliance. Even if an FFN provider is not required to attend a health and safety course, they may want to consider registering for a course.
Providers can find the rules for licensing and child care in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). The state also has a table of child care licenses policies and procedures.
Broken down by topic, this table is easier to navigate than the WAC. The table also includes the state's procedures, making it easier for providers to understand the steps of an application or investigation, including when an investigator or other state official is acting beyond their authority or unfairly targeting them.
One thing to be aware of is that regulations can extend beyond a center's normal operating hours. Washington, for example, bans smoking from early learning centers even outside of business hours.
Behaviors that are otherwise legal may also be banned or limited for childcare providers. While it's legal to use marijuana recreationally in Washington, no one can use or be under the influence of any cannabis products in family home early learning centers during business hours. This means everyone, including residents of the house who do not work with the center.
Applying for a License
Applying for an initial child care license can be time-consuming. DCYF can take up to 90 days to process applications on top of the time for pre-application training.
Once an initial application is approved, it will be good for up to six months. DCYF can issue up to four initial licenses for each application, at which point they must either deny the application or issue a non-expiring, or permanent license.
A supervisor will approve the first and second initial licenses. An area administrator will approve the third and fourth licenses. A fair warning letter will accompany the third and fourth initial licenses.
A non-expiring license requires the following:
- Observing the child before issuing the license
- An unannounced initial inspection within six months of issuing the license
The term non-expiring can be confusing because providers must still keep the license renewed and up-to-date. This includes paying fees. The state refers to the renewal date as a license's anniversary date. This is the date the state first issued a provider's initial license. Note that this is the first initial license and not the date they obtained a non-expiring license.
Every year, thirty days before the anniversary date, providers must:
- Pay a fee
- Submit a Declaration of Compliance
- Submit a Family Home Child Care Background Checklist or Child Care Center/School Age Background Checklist
- Submitted portable background checks, including payment of any related fees, for everyone connected to the license
Failure to submit these documents or pay the fee by the anniversary date may result in a suspension or revocation of a license. Washington does not allow appeals when licenses have expired or not been renewed.
Between July 2021 and June 2023, Washington suspended childcare licensing fees. As of July 1, 2023, providers must again pay licensing fees within thirty days of their license renewal.
Fees are due annually and vary depending on the type of childcare center. Family home care centers have the lowest fees, while childcare centers and school-age center programs have an initial flat fee that covers up to 12 children with an additional per child fee, up to a center's licensed capacity. The Washington State Legislature must vote to approve any increase in annual fees.
Providers receive annual notice 90 days before a fee is due. If providers do not receive a notice, they will need to contact the DSHS Financial Services Administration (FSA). Providers should not mail in a fee payment without an invoice, as FSA won't be able to process it.
Failing to pay fees may result in a license suspension or revocation. Losing a license due to not following renewal requirements also closes the door to appealing a lost license.
Parents and other individuals may report child care centers to DCYF if they believe children are being abused or neglected or if a center is otherwise failing to comply with the law. This can include unlicensed centers. Washington lists the five most common reasons for filing a complaint as:
- Lack of adequate supervision
- Insufficient nurturing and care
- Unsafe facility environment
- Inappropriate discipline
- Lack of proper sanitation (and other health concerns)
Within five business days of receiving a complaint, a DCYF licensor will begin an investigation. This investigation will include an unannounced visit to the childcare center and may also involve interviews with parents, children, and staff.
Most complaints are resolved within 45 days. Valid complaints will be posted on Child Care Check.
In Washington, childcare providers are mandated reporters. This means they have a legal requirement to report child abuse and neglect. Providers do not have to witness abuse or neglect but simply believe or have reason to suspect a child is being abused or neglected.
Mandatory reporters cannot file anonymous reports and cannot be sued for making good-faith reports. Those who knowingly make a bad-faith report, however, can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Mandatory reporters who know of or suspect abuse or neglect and fail to make a report may be found guilty of a gross misdemeanor.
Washington defines a gross misdemeanor as a crime punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and/or imprisonment in a county jail for up to 90 days.
Transferring Child Care Licenses
Washington allows providers to transfer childcare licenses. Transfers may be made on non-expiring licenses and won't incur any additional fees or changes to the licensee's compliance requirements or renewal dates.
DCYF has up to 90 days to approve or deny a transfer application. Either party can unilaterally choose to cancel the application before DCYF issues its decision.
When a center is found to be non-compliant or a threat to children, DCYF may pursue five enforcement actions:
- License suspension
- License revocation
- Civil penalty
- License modification
The state may also levy fines against a childcare provider.
Noncompliance means that a center isn't following the law or regulations. Once a provider receives notice of a decision to revoke their license, they have up to 28 days to appeal a decision. A revocation may begin immediately but no later than 28 days after a provider receives notice.
A Child Care Licensing Administrator (CCLA) approves all revocations and suspensions. If a provider does not wish to appeal the decision, they may choose to close the child care center. In this case, the CCLA can choose to accept the closure rather than going ahead with the license revocation.
Any Violation Counts
DCYF can rely on information from other sources, such as other state departments or local governments, when determining if a center is not in compliance. Some examples of outside agencies include:
- Local building or city officials
- Local health jurisdictions
- The fire marshal
To better understand what this means, Tacoma provides a good example. The city has regulations on zoning and maximum occupancy for childcare centers. The city also requires at least two parking spaces for every 10 enrolled children. If a daycare center is out of compliance with these regulations, DCYF could use this as a basis for suspending or revoking a license, even though the regulations are not from the WAC or DCYF policy.
Imminent Danger or Risk
Washington allows for immediate suspension or revocation of a license when children are in imminent danger or risk. This means the state does not have to follow normal due process procedures.
The WAC gives two reasons for why a license may be immediately suspended:
- The conditions of a child care center represent an imminent threat to the children in care
- Public health, safety, or welfare requires immediate action
DCYF staff may assess fines in addition to other enforcement actions. They may levy fines against licensed programs that have violated the law or against unlicensed, non-exempt child care programs.
The amount of the fine varies depending on the type of childcare center. Fines are levied by day and per violation. In general, a family home, either licensed or unlicensed, has lower fines than early learning or school-age programs. For fines, violations must be during the current year.
Washington provides a variation on the following example to illustrate how fines can be levied. For purposes of this example, school-age centers face a $250 per day, per violation fine.
An early learning program has a capacity of 25 children, but its current enrollment is 27 children. The program will be fined $250 per day because the over-enrollment is a single violation. In this case, fines would not be levied for each child over the licensed capacity.
Now, let's say that same early learning program is found to be over its enrollment and not following the state's safe sleep practices for infants. In this case, the center may be fined up to $500 per day as there are two violations.
Fines may be reduced or withdrawn if a childcare center achieves compliance during the notification period.
Appealing Enforcement Actions
Providers have options to challenge decisions by DCYF. Which option is best for you will depend on your license and your circumstances.
An important consideration is that if a non-expiring license is due for renewal, providers should still proceed with the process, including paying the fee. Washington gives providers no right to appeal for expired or non renewed licenses. Even when facing enforcement actions, providers need to make sure they are continuing to comply with other requirements for keeping their license active.
When faced with an enforcement action, providers may request an adjudicative action, or appeal. When a provider receives a notice of violation, that notice must include information on the provider's right to appeal. This information will include their right to appeal and how to request a hearing. It should also include how long a provider has to appeal the decision.
For providers facing enforcement actions, prompt action is important. The Lento Law Firm can help providers make sense of their options and make sure they're following all of the necessary laws and procedures. Don't risk losing your license on a technicality.
Early learning centers may file a dispute request in response to an inspection report of valid complaint filing. Centers may not request dispute resolution for incidents with pending enforcement actions.
Centers will submit a request form. A SCCA or designee will assign five staff to a panel. Panel members must be free of conflicts of interest, and alternates may be used if any panel members do have a conflict. The panel will review the information.
If you've been fined, you keep in mind that fines may be withdrawn or at least reduced once you're in compliance.
Both the state and cities in Washington have resources to support families with both finding and affording child care. Providers can benefit from knowing about these resources, both in terms of attracting new families and also ensuring their information is correct and if they are or would like to be part of any additional services.
The state operates the Child Care Check website. This website is a directory of childcare provider organizations by type and/or location. Parents and guardians can filter providers using a variety of criteria, including whether a center has availability, participates in early achievers, or has a history of being unlicensed.
Local governments may have additional requirements or programs. Seattle has a Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to help reduce the cost of care for families. Providers must be licensed by Washington and vetted by the City of Seattle's Department of Education and Early Learning. The program occasionally has a waitlist.
A 2021 report by the Washington State Department of Commerce highlighted that approximately 80 percent of childcare providers in Washington report staffing shortages. The report reaffirmed other research that low pay was one of the biggest challenges to recruiting staff. The report also highlighted the need for childcare subsidies and better support for childcare providers.
For some areas of Washington, this shortage is compounded by the high cost of living. Seattle is in the top ten for metropolitan regions with the highest costs of living.
On the plus side, the city and state have some of the highest minimum wage requirements in the United States. Even though many providers are small enough not to fall under the minimum-wage laws, one potential issue is that smaller providers have to compete against larger employers who pay higher hourly wages.
These costs, coupled with health and safety requirements, can put added burdens on childcare providers. In some cases, these burdens may mean they have to make difficult decisions or cut corners. If and when an investigator or a site visit uncovers these issues, providers may face the additional stress of an investigation or risk the suspension or loss of their license.
The Lento Law Firm can help providers stuck between financial and regulatory considerations. We can help providers build a case that shows why they are qualified to care for children.
Protect Your Livelihood
Ensuring children are safe is an important priority for society. When laws are incorrectly applied or overly broad, these same laws can risk the livelihood of childcare providers.
If you're facing enforcement actions or fines against your license, up to and including license revocation, the Lento Law Firm can help. If and when you face allegations of misconduct, contact us by phone or fill out a form.