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Commissioner: Child care a growing need

Some Dickinson City Commission members say child care services are needed in the area but they won't balk at safety to make it happen.

At Monday's commission meeting, Fire Chief Bob Sivak said a "gray area" exists when it comes to residential child care and safety codes.

Dickinson is home to 31 family-licensed child care homes and 32 group-licensed facilities. Family licenses allow the provider to care for up to seven children, while a group license allows the provider to care for up to 18 children.

Child care provider Tabatha Peterson applied for a special-use permit to convert to a group child-care setting able to take up to 18 children, up from her family setting of seven children. After Planning and Zoning Committee members denied the request, Peterson appealed the decision and Monday the commissioners rejected her appeal. Peterson was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Commissioners expressed deep concern with Peterson's child care facility, stating the area was too congested and risks being inaccessible by emergency vehicles.

"When I think of 732 square feet with even 15 children and two adults, I can't imagine anyone living in those kinds of facilities and calling it safe," Commissioner Shirley Dukart said.

Sheila Walter, Stark County Social Services licensor, said the state mandates a minimum of 35 square feet per child indoors and 75 square feet per child outdoors.

Sivak said the fire department can only mandate building codes and exits regarding the structure and space-per-child is handled by Stark County Social Services.

"This (conflict) shows that it is time to take a serious look at fire code and building code and where is the line that separates a child care facility from a residential occupancy," Sivak said.

Sivak said today's standards may be different than decisions made in the past.

"There are areas within the community that have access issues ... there are areas that are truly less than ideal as to how we would look at them today," Sivak said.

Peterson was comparing her access points to that of another local child care facility.

"One of the reasons we are more cognizant of that is because these mistakes, if you will, or these less-than-desirable situations do exist and we are very painfully aware of them."

Sivak said fire codes require emergency access to a property within a minimum 150 feet.

"Now we are talking about a facility that isn't just a residence, now we are talking about a facility with people's children in there," Sivak said.

For several years, Dickinson child care facilities have been allowed in residential structures, Sivak said.

Dukart said though there is a need for child care, she would not be willing to compromise the safety of children and residents, and stated funding is an issue when it comes to quality child care.

"We need child care funding from the state," Dukart said. "People can't afford to pay high premiums."

Linda Reinicke, program director for Childcare Resource and Referral at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, said in 2008, licensed providers in Stark County met 36.5 percent of the potential demand for child care.

Reinicke said Childcare Resource and Referral is hoping to receive stimulus dollars to provide a quality improvement program and capacity-building program for child care providers.

"I think there is (greater need for child care,) especially with oil-country employment increasing," Reinicke said.