Tue November 27, 2012
Could Kentucky Learn from Mississippi's Controversial Childcare Subsidy Move?
The scheme, prosecutors allege, worked like this:
A parent would sign up a child for the subsidy program meant to help low-income families cover childcare costs while parents worked or went to school. The parent would sign an attendance sheets for several days in advance. The child would never show up. The daycare would submit the paperwork to the program's administrator and be paid as if the child attended.
This summer, a grand jury indicted Lavonia Lewars on felony fraud charges, accusing her of bilking more than $300,000 from the Child Care Assistance Program, which is funded through federal and state money. Lewars owned three Heavenly Angels Childcare Centers in Louisville, where the fraud is alleged to have happened. She was already in the news after a daycare van carrying children and employees crashed into a tree on Algonquin Parkway, killing a woman and injury several others.
I covered the fraud charges against Lewars for The Courier-Journal, before leaving for WFPL. Last week, I stumbled onto a story that seemed related to the Lewars case.
NPR reported on a new initiative in Mississippi that may have headed off the sort of fraud Lewars is accused of committing -- but the plan has its critics.
Under the plan, parents who use childcare subsidies will be asked to scan their finger prints when bring in their children. From NPR.org:
... (T)he state says the system will prevent fraud and save money. Officials say centers that may have falsified attendance won't be able to do that and are likely to drop out of the program. And children who have too many absences could lose their vouchers. The state spent $1.7 million to buy the equipment, and it will pay a subsidiary of Xerox nearly $13 million over five years to manage the system.
The plan's critics argue that forcing fingerprints will stigmatize the subsidy's recipients and lead to daycare dropping out of the subsidy program.
"I have certificates, but you don't want everybody to know everything you do or everything you get," subsidy recipient Catreennia Harris told NPR, referring to the subsidy as "certificates." "And you have to scan your finger and everybody just [thinks], 'Oh yeah, she's on certificate. I bet she's on welfare, and she gets food stamps,' and all that. Just singling people out."
The plan's advocates argue that a similar move was made with success in Louisiana, and that daycares can take steps reduce the stigma.
Would something like this ever happen in Kentucky? Without going into specifics, a spokeswoman for the state agency that regulates daycares said they're looking into measures to reduce fraud in the subsidy program.
State regulators are "exploring new methods of quality assurance and additional internal controls and keeps abreast of other state systems and the subsequent return on investment," said Gwenda Bond, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Currently, state regulators have a process that flags daycares that may be "at risk," Bond said. Those situations are investigated when warranted and may lead to charges.
Lewars' trial is scheduled for March 19, said Leland Hulbert, a spokesman for the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.