It seemed like such a practical and good arrangement, the kind that moms have been making with each other since the beginning of time: One woman would watch her friends’ kids while they waited for the school bus so the other women could go to their jobs.
And then the Michigan Department of Human Services stepped in to tell the Good Samaritan mother that she was facing fines and possible jail time for running an illegal day care center.
“To me, this is just a friend helping a friend, plain and simple,” Lisa Snyder said during an interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer from her Middleville, Mich., home Tuesday.
With Snyder were her friends and fellow moms Francie Brummel, Mindy Rose and Lori Forbes, who began the school year by dropping their kids off at Snyder’s house to wait for the school bus. With them was Michigan state Rep. Brian Calley, who is working to change a law that he and the women feel is being misapplied to punish friends and neighbors for helping each other out.
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“It takes a village, but I guess in Michigan we’re saying it takes a licensed village,” Calley told Lauer, referring to the title of Hillary Clinton’s book about raising children.
An unwelcome letter
The bizarre story began on Sept. 8, the first day of school, when Brummel, Rose and Forbes dropped their young children off at Snyder’s home in a rural neighborhood to wait for the bus. The kids all regularly played together and they were at Snyder’s house for not even an hour every morning.
But just three days later, on Sept. 11, Snyder got a letter from the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) telling her that someone — presumably another neighbor — had complained that she was running an illegal day care center. Snyder was told that she had to either get a license to run such a service, or face fines and up to 90 days in jail.
The law, which dates back to 1973, says that anyone who watches an unrelated person’s child for a period of 28 days a year is running a day care center and has to have a license. It doesn’t matter if the child is being watched for five minutes a day or five hours.
“I called my husband. I was a little bit freaked out,” Snyder told Lauer. “Then I called all the other mothers — and my mom.”
‘Buy an umbrella’
Snyder then called the DHS to try to find out why she needed a license when she was just watching her friends’ children and wasn’t being paid.
“I started asking questions, and I told them I thought it was ridiculous,” Snyder said. “Some of the answers that they gave me, I just started getting angry, and I said, ‘I don’t agree with this.’
“I said that the children should be able to come into my house if it’s raining or there’s a snowstorm,” Snyder went on. “The lady said to me, plain and simple, ‘Tell the parents to buy an umbrella.’ She was serious.”
Snyder also asked if the kids could come to her house for playdates. She was told that if the children’s parents were at home during the playtime it was OK, but if they dropped the kids off to play and then went to the store or out to dinner, it was no longer a playdate — it was day care.
‘Difficult to believe’
Calley, who got involved when one of Snyder’s friends told him about the situation, agrees that it’s absurd.
“I found it very difficult to believe when I read the letter and the account of what happened,” the state legislator told Lauer. “I thought surely I must be missing something. I called the department personally, and they confirmed that the letter and everything in it was true, and that it was the position of the department that a day care license was necessary for the kids to wait for the bus in this house.”
Lauer suggested that if one of the children were injured while in Snyder’s care, there could be legal issues, and that might be a basis for the DHS position.
“I understand the idea of regulating a business in that way, but when friends are helping friends, I think parents are in much better position to determine what’s safe for their kids than the Department of Human Services,” Calley replied. “There’s no amount of testing or interviews or applications that somebody could fill out and send them to the Department of Human Services that would make them more capable of determining a safe environment for kids than the parents themselves.”
James Gale of the Michigan Department of Human Services confirmed the facts of the case and told NBC News that the department must look into all complaints about illegal day care centers. “In the interest of protecting children, we will investigate all allegations or complaints of unlicensed child care.”
Snyder is sure that one of her neighbors must have complained, but said she has no idea who it might be.
Despite the DHS warning, Snyder continues to allow two of her friends’ children to wait for the bus at her house. Brummel has stopped dropping her son off while they wait for the issue to be resolved. And Calley is working to rewrite the law to allow people who aren’t paid to look after friends’ children.
“The law itself is taken way out of context. It’s meant to regulate the business of providing day care services. It’s not meant to apply to friends helping friends in this way,” Calley said. “What I’d like to do is clarify the law and take away the ability of the department to apply in this way.”
Added Forbes: “It’s not a day care — it’s a bus stop.”
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