Is a murderer running your kid's day care? Doesn't hurt to ask

The "Hello" sticker on my jacket identified me as Rebecca to the preschool's new-parent breakfast, but it could have just said "Hi, I'm Crazy Paranoid Mom."

The timing was either very bad or very good: I'd just learned of reporter Chris Hansen's Dateline investigation, in which he discovered thousands of day care workers with criminal convictions, from grand theft and domestic violence to child abuse and manslaughter. We assume state regulators and licensing agencies prevent people like that from watching our kids -- turns out, not so much. 

So there I was, grilling the preschool director about criminal background checks while the other parents chatted merrily about drop-off times, curriculum and tuition (like normal people, my husband might add).

I'm not totally off my rocker. I do realize that even though the Dateline investigation is terrifying, most day cares are good, safe places staffed by hard-working people who really care about children. Odds are, your child's day care is not run by a murderer. Part of me doesn't even want to think about the Dateline investigation, because I feel working moms already get saddled with too much guilt -- now we have to worry about this, too? 

Still, the examples Hansen found are real. And I'm not going to let my own guilt get in the way of asking questions that might keep my child safer.

Back to the preschool director, who smiled politely as she described their criminal background checks and safety precautions -- she even mentioned that all the classroom doors have glass windows, so anyone can see what's going on inside at any time. Then I asked about emergency plans, and she proudly told me they can evacuate a five-story building of 240 preschoolers in under five minutes. (I struggle getting one preschooler out the door in under 20 minutes.) She looked at me seriously.

"You know, I stay awake at night thinking about this stuff."

That's really what I wanted to hear. Parents worry anytime we let our children out into the big, wide world. (And I can just imagine the parents of teenagers laughing at this now, thinking, ha! Just wait till he hits the teen years, then you'll know what worry really is.) A good day care should share the worry with you, not add to it.

Hansen has some good tips below, but perhaps the best advice I've heard for parents evaluating child care is: trust your instincts. Research and investigate, yes, but even if all the checks come up clean and all the references are glowing and everyone says this is the best school in town -- if your parental Spidey Sense tells you something feels wrong, listen to it. Intuition can be a powerful defense for our kids -- use it.

And if that makes me Crazy Paranoid Mom, so be it. It's a label I'll wear proudly -- as I check the location of all the preschool's fire exits.

Hansen offered TODAY Moms the following advice for parents who want to learn more about researching child care providers.

Q. What’s the most effective way to do a background check?   

A.  There is no single site for background checks; a thorough check requires consulting several sources, some of which are only available to law enforcement.   Our experts say the best solution is to pass a federal law requiring ALL states to run fingerprint checks through law enforcement databases on state and federal level, as well as through sex offender and child abuse registries nationally.  Until we do that there are no guarantees.  However, to have some measure of confidence that  a person doesn't have a criminal history, you can do your own check of both state and county criminal records, as well as sexual predator and child abuse registries.   

Every state has criminal history searches available online – usually there is a small charge for each search.  Our advice is to stick with the government sites; there are some commercial background check sites as well, but there’s no way to know how extensive their databases really are.   Try various searches like "criminal records (state name)" and "court records (county name)."  

Q. How do I find the Sexual Predator and Child Abuse Registries?

A. Again, you can do an online search for these by state. Try searches like "sex offenders (state name)."  Here are some sample search results:

Florida sex offenders:

New York sex offenders:

Here is a central site where you can check abuse and neglect registries in each state:

Here is another collection of national, state and federal registry links & related sites.  
This one also includes military conviction and federal prison sites: 

Q. What should I look for when choosing a daycare facility (or making sure the one I’m using is a good one)?

A. As a first step, there are MANY checklists of questions to ask the provider (most don’t address the background check issue, so be sure to handle that in addition to whatever else the checklist suggests). 

One watchdog group is the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRA):

The NACCRA recommends a checklist for parents that is provided by the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care

That checklist is here:

Also, each state licensing agency publishes information about its daycare facilities online.  
Keep in mind that each state has a different name for its licensing agency,  so to find the name of the agency in your state, try searches like “daycare licensing (state name).”

 Here is an example of info for parents on the Texas state site:

… and here are links to Texas child safety campaigns:

Q. How can I find out about the policy governing daycare providers in my state?

A.  A good resource for this is also NACCRA.  Note that each state has a different policy governing background checks for daycare centers and family daycare homes (smaller centers caring for kids in homes). Remember that even though a state might require fingerprinting, they may only check state criminal records (as opposed to federal, county,  sexual offender, and child abuse records), so parents may have false sense of security.  We still recommend doing your own check of all the available records.

In the meantime, here are some links to NACCRA information about background check requirements for daycare providers in different states:

Here is an overview of the issues and pending legislation:

Here is a comparison of the different state background check polices – child care centers:   

Here is a comparison of state requirements for the smaller family child care homes:

Q. How can I tell if my child might be experiencing abuse?

A. There are GENERAL listings for spotting abuse or neglect anywhere, not just in daycare, from the Center for Child Protection and Family Support:

Rebecca Dube is the TODAY Moms editor and mother of a 2-year-old.