AUGUSTA — The state’s child care licensing office has used federal grant funding to hire 16 new investigators in an effort to comply with federal safety guidelines.

Simultaneously, according to Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, Maine is moving toward a more efficient system of annual inspections that would target poorer-performing facilities for up to four unannounced reviews per year while streamlining the inspection process for centers that perennially score well.

The inspections, which happen at least once every year, encompass everything from nutrition guidelines to staff training to building code compliance.

“When you’re a parent or guardian of a child and you’re dropping that child off — someone who doesn’t have a voice to speak for themselves — the regulations are to hopefully promote a safe environment for that child,” said Albert. “That’s the value of sending your child to a licensed day care provider. You know there is a regulatory process.”

The hiring of 19 new employees — which includes the 16 new positions and three vacancies — will bring the total number of investigators to 25. According to Albert, they are responsible for the oversight of 1,300 family child care providers, 750 child care facilities and about 90 nursery schools.

Albert said the increase in investigators will bring the state into compliance with suggested federal guidelines that each investigator have a caseload of about 80 centers. The average caseload for investigators is around 180.

Albert said violations are not uncommon but occur at a fraction of all centers. From 2012 to 2014, there were more than 50 centers that were given conditional licenses — meaning the centers had deficiencies that merited further monitoring but not closure — and more than 25 license revocations or closures.

Investigators also follow up on individual complaints, of which there were 205 in 2012 and 259 in 2013.

Lisa Bozeman, owner of Little Sprouts Daycare in Brunswick, has been in the business for 10 years. She said she has been involved with “both good investigators and bad ones.” What usually separates the two has been the level of experience in actually running a child care center, she said.

“Sometimes the state will hire them, and although they have the education and credentials to do the job, they don’t have the experience to put themselves in the place of the providers,” she said. “I do think providers are under a lot of pressure to do more and more and more, not just the hands-on with the kids. … It can be an overwhelming job, and they just keep adding more and more.”

Bozeman said one recent example of the escalating regulations is a requirement that each center develop a disaster preparedness plan, including training for staff.

“If you’re doing the job and doing it well, you do not have time for all of that unless you do like I do, and bite the bullet and work 80 hours a week,” she said. “It’s only when something happens does the state step in. They tend to close the barn door after the horse gets out, then they go too far, and everybody pays.”

Joyce Ryder, director of the Little Angels Daycare and Preschool on Court Street in Bangor, said Wednesday that seeing an investigator walk through the center’s door unannounced is always a cause for some stress.

“They determine whether or not we stay open,” said Ryder. “They come in and evaluate your center to make sure you comply with rules and regulations. Are your floors and walls clean? Are the kids happy? Are you preparing your meals right? Have you kept up with maintenance and painting?”

Ryder said the inspectors often are helpful at pointing out areas where even the most diligent efforts fall short, such as places that could use extra cleaning.

“If it weren’t for them coming in and looking at your building, there are some owners who would just let it go,” said Ryder. “They point out things that you don’t even think of to clean because you’re busy working with the kids.”

Rita Furlow, senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, said her organization is pleased to see the state stepping up its regulation of safety issues at child care centers but is concerned about the funding source.

“It looks like they’re using federal subsidy funds that otherwise would be going directly to parents to help them afford child care,” said Furlow. “It’s unfortunate that the Legislature couldn’t manage to provide funding to pay for [the licensing activities] directly.”

Albert, who talked to the Bangor Daily News Wednesday afternoon, could not be reached later in the day to comment on Furlow’s assertions.

A study by a group called Child Care Aware of America gave a low ranking to Maine in its 2013 report, which measures states based on regulations in place and oversight activities. Maine ranked 47th among the 50 states, Washington D.C., and the Department of Defense.

Albert said several initiatives are underway to improve the system, including a new web portal that is under development that will allow parents to research licensed child care providers. That portal is expected to be available early next year.

“It is our responsibility to inform parents of any situation that potentially may impact their child, and we are committed to doing that,” said Albert. “There is a distinct value for parents to select a licensed child care provider, and the way that value is maintained and strengthened is through effective oversight and sharing of information.”

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