Each day before the school bus comes to pick up the neighborhood's children, Lisa Snyder did a favor for three of her fellow moms, welcoming their children into her home for about an hour before they left for school.
Regulators who oversee child care, however, don't see it as charity. Days after the start of the new school year, Snyder received a letter from the Michigan Department of Human Services warning her that if she continued, she'd be violating a law aimed at the operators of unlicensed day care centers.
"I was freaked out. I was blown away," she said. "I got on the phone immediately, called my husband, then I called all the girls" — that is, the mothers whose kids she watches — "every one of them."
Snyder's predicament has led to a debate in Michigan about whether a law that says no one may care for unrelated children in their home for more than four weeks each calendar year unless they are licensed day-care providers needs to be changed. It also has irked parents who say they depend on such friendly offers to help them balance work and family.
On Tuesday, agency Director Ismael Ahmed said good neighbors should be allowed to help each other ensure their children are safe. Gov. Jennifer Granholm instructed Ahmed to work with the state Legislature to change the law, he said.
"Being a good neighbor means helping your neighbors who are in need," Ahmed said in a written statement. "This could be as simple as providing a cup of sugar, monitoring their house while they're on vacation or making sure their children are safe while they wait for the school bus."
Snyder learned that the agency was responding to a neighbor's complaint.
Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said the agency was following standard procedure in its response. "But we feel this (law) really gets in the way of common sense," Boyd said.
"We want to protect kids, but the law needs to be reasonable," she said. "When the governor learned of this, she acted quickly and called the director personally to ask him to intervene."
State Rep. Brian Calley, R-Portland, said he was working to draft legislation that would exempt situations like Snyder's from coverage under Michigan's current day care regulations.
The bill will make it clear that people who aren't in business as day care providers don't need to be licensed, Calley said.
"These are just kids that wait for the bus every morning," he said. "This is not a day care."
'It does take a village'Snyder, 35, lives in a rural subdivision in Barry County's Irving Township about 25 miles southeast of Grand Rapids. Her tidy, comfortable three-bedroom home is a designated school bus stop. The three neighbor children she watched — plus Snyder's first-grader, Grace — attend school about six miles away in Middleville.
Snyder said she started watching the other children this school year to help her friends; they often baby-sit for each other during evenings and weekends.
After receiving the state agency's letter, she said she called the agency and tried to explain that she wasn't running a day care center or accepting money from her friends.
Under state law, no one may care for unrelated children in their home for more than four weeks each calendar year unless they are licensed day-care providers. Snyder said she stopped watching the other children immediately after receiving the letter, which was well within the four-week period.
"I've lived in this community for 35 years and everyone I know has done some form of this," said Francie Brummel, 42, who would drop off her second-grade son, Colson, before heading to her job as deputy treasurer of the nearby city of Hastings.
Other moms say they regularly deal with similar situations.
Amy Cowan, 34, of Grosse Pointe Farms, a Detroit suburb, said she often takes turns with her sister, neighbor and friend watching each other's children.
"The worst part of this whole thing, with the state of the economy ... two parents have to work," said Cowan, a corporate sales representative with a 5-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter. "When you throw in the fact that the state is getting involved, it gives women a hard time for going back to work.
"I applaud the lady who takes in her neighbors' kids while they're waiting for the bus. She's enabling her peers to go to work and get a paycheck. The state should be thankful for that."
Amy Maciaszek, 42, of McHenry, Ill., who works in direct sales, said she believes the state agency was "trying to be overprotective."
"I think it does take a village and that's the best way," said Maciaszek, who has a 6-year-old boy and twin 3-year-old daughters. "Unfortunately you do have to be careful about that. These mothers are trying to do the right thing."