How to Use a State Inspection Sheet

When her 3-year-old son's childcare center suddenly shut down, Alissa Jackson felt panicky and overwhelmed.
Jackson had found the center with little effort, thanks to recommendations from friends and a bit of luck. This time she would have to do it the hard way, starting from scratch without anybody pointing the way.

Soon, her uneasiness gave way to a sense of mission. With a little digging, she gained confidence. A lot of good information was readily available, including state inspection reports that provided a paper trail for her to follow.

"I'm definitely someone who searches a lot before I do anything," said Jackson, who lives in Galena. "Definitely, when it comes to my kids, I go above and beyond."

The stakes are enormous - emotionally for parents, developmentally for children and financially for the entire family. Children in full-time child care from infancy until kindergarten will spend as many hours in child care as they will in school, according to Action for Children, a Columbus nonprofit. And the cost will rival four years of college tuition.

Jackson had to act fast when her son's center closed in July, but she was determined to be thorough. She wasn't looking to find just a place to drop off her son - she wanted to find the right place, where he would be safe, loved and nurtured.

In addition to Will, 3, she also was pregnant at the time with her son, Kellan. He, too, would need child care when she returned to her job as a social worker at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

She was pleasantly surprised to find a trove of information literally at her fingertips. Ohio licenses childcare centers and preschools with more than six children. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services inspects them twice a year.

The reports, as well as inspections of complaints, are available online. Jackson said she found the website informative and easy to use.

Users can check a specific center's inspection reports or sift, sort and browse centers more broadly based on location, inspection performance and other criteria. Action for Children notes that some violations are more significant than others.

Violations of particular concern include being understaffed (referred to as "staff/child ratios" and "grouping" in inspection reports), failing to run criminal background checks on employees ("statement of non-conviction") and not prominently posting the latest state inspection at the childcare center.

Jackson discovered that more help was a phone call away. Action for Children assists parents in their search for free.

"Scary," said Nancy Currie, an Action for Children referral specialist, as she scrolled down a computer screen filled with red type. The state highlights more serious citations in red.

With more than 900 licensed centers in Franklin County alone, Action for Children helped Jackson narrow and focus her search. The state inspection reports provided a starting point. After visiting more than a dozen centers, Jackson reexamined the inspections to validate her impressions.

"I think you get a feel when you walk in a place, right away," Jackson said.

Researching child care centers provides a foundation for the final and ultimate test, said Action for Children spokeswoman Sandi Dubin: "Trust your gut instincts."