Tips for Choosing Child Care

Finding the right caregiver for your child is often challenging, but it is one of the most important decisions you will make. Parents play the most important role in the life of a child; however, the relationship between a child and a caregiver can affect a child's self image and how he or she views the world. When infants, toddlers and young children receive warm and responsive care, they feel safe and secure. When parents know their children are receiving warm and responsive care by well-trained providers, those parents can return to the workforce feeling secure in the knowledge that their child is receiving safe and nourishing care.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) has prepared a brochure called Choosing Child Care that provides some guidance to parents when selecting a child care provider. 

Please note, families who qualify for child care subsidies are required to use regulated child care whether it be licensed or certified.

Licensed Child Care

Under Wisconsin law, no person may for compensation provide care and supervision for 4 or more children under the age of 7 for less than 24 hours a day unless that person obtains a license to operate a child care center from the Department. This does not include a relative or guardian of a child who provides care and supervision for the child; a public or parochial school; a person employed to come to the home of the child's parent or guardian for less than 24 hours a day; or a county, city, village, town, school district or library that provides programs primarily intended for recreational or social purposes. Child care centers are licensed by the state from one of five regional licensing offices

There are 2 different categories of state licensed child care; they depend upon the number of children in care:

  • Licensed Family Child Care Centers provide care for up to 8 children. This care is usually in the provider's home, but it is not required to be located in a residence.
  • Licensed Group Child Care Centers provide care for 9 or more children. These centers are usually located somewhere other than a residence and may be small or large in size.

County Certified Child Care

There is a voluntary form of regulation in Wisconsin for those child care programs that are not required to be licensed. This type of regulation is called certification. Counties certify child care homes and some school-age child care programs. Certification is available for those families who wish to receive a child care subsidy, but who do not choose to use licensed care.

Contact the Child Care Resource and Referral at 1-888-713-KIDS (5437) for information about the child care choices available in your area.

For additional information on helping parents make child care choices, visit the YoungStar Parents webpage.

To understand the star rating that providers receive, read more about the star rating system in the YoungStar "Reading the Stars" brochure.

Important Questions

Most experts consider caregiver education and training to be one of the most critical areas for ensuring and improving the quality of child care. Education in early childhood education and previous experience caring for children can help providers develop the skills necessary to provide quality early childhood experiences to children.

Fewer children per caregiver and smaller group sizes are important because children receive more individual attention and caregivers can be more responsive to each child's needs. The child care licensing regulations specify the maximum number of children who may be cared for in a group and they also specify the number of caretakers required for a group of children. For example, in a Group Child Care Center when children are under age 2, there should be no more than 4 children per caregiver with no more than 8 children in the group. When children are between ages 3 and 4 years, the Group Child Care Center licensing rules allow 10 children per caregiver with no more than 20 children in a group.

Children need to be exposed to a variety of new experiences and opportunities in a safe environment. There should be some structure in the daily activities planned for children with opportunities to play outside each day. The center should be equipped with toys and furnishings that are safe and child appropriate. There should be open spaces for children to explore and quiet spaces for reading a book or playing with puzzles.

The licensing rules require that parents be able to visit the center at any time. Sometimes, when you are asking to tour a center before placing your child there for care, a center may ask that you make an appointment so that someone may be free to show you around and answer questions. But once your child is enrolled in the center, you have the right to come in to the program anytime.

You can tell a lot about a child care program by visiting the program before you enroll and by stopping in unexpectedly after your child is enrolled. Things to look for when visiting a program include noise levels; crying children; whether there are televisions turned on all the time; and whether children seem engaged in meaningful play activities or are wandering aimlessly. Check to see if the child care providers are interacting with the children or whether they are busy with other tasks.

There are 17 child care resource and referral (CC R & R) agencies located throughout the state that are designed to help parents locate child care. These CCR&Rs have a listing of all regulated, licensed or certified child care providers in the counties served by the agency. They are able to provide lists of providers that meet the needs you specify and can also provide additional information related to choosing quality child care. Call 1-800-713-KIDS (5437) to be transferred to the agency serving the county in which the call originates or you can check the Child Care Resource and Referral web site to find the agency that serves your county.

All licensed programs receive periodic monitoring visits by a licensing specialist. Each time a monitoring visit is conducted, the licensing specialist checks to ensure compliance with selected licensing rules. At the end of every monitoring visit, the licensing specialist discusses any violations or concerns with the licensee and a report of the findings is issued. This report can be either a Statement of Non-Compliance that enumerates the violations found or a Compliance Statement that shows that no licensing violations were noted on the visit. These reports must be posted in an area of the center that is readily visible to parents and the public. If you don't see a licensing visit report posted, you should ask the center to see the results of the most recent monitoring visit.

Parents are encouraged to call or visit the regional licensing office to find out a center's compliance history. The regional licensing office will also be able to tell you if any complaints have been filed about the center and whether those complaints were founded or not.

Once your child is enrolled in a child care setting, you will be visiting the program regularly. Because the licensing specialist is only able to make one or two routine monitoring visits each year, the parents? help in observing what is happening at a center is critical. If you are having a problem with a center or believe that a licensing rule may have been violated you are encouraged to call the regional licensing office to talk with a licensing specialist.

Each program licensed by the Department agrees to follow rules that are designed to protect the children in care. If you believe that a center may be violating one of the licensing rules, you may file a complaint with the licensing office. You may report a complaint over the telephone, via e-mail or in writing to the regional licensing office that serves the facility. Reports may be filed anonymously. Every complaint is investigated. Some situations (such as payment or tuition disputes) are not covered by the licensing rules. These concerns will not be accepted as complaints.

When filing a complaint, please give as much information as possible about your concerns. This information will be helpful to the licensing specialist who will investigate the complaint. Supplying dates, times, the exact location (room or area of the center) of the suspected violation, and names of people involved or other potential witnesses will help the investigator gather information to determine whether a rule violation occurred.

A licensing specialist will be assigned to investigate the complaint. This investigation may include an unannounced visit to the program to observe conditions, interviews with the licensee and current or former staff members and, if appropriate, a check of center records.

After the investigation is completed, the licensing specialist will determine whether the allegations in the complaint are substantiated (it was determined with reasonable certainty that a rule violation occurred) or unsubstantiated (it was determined with reasonable certainty that no rule violation occurred). Any violations noted are listed on a Statement of Non-Compliance and Corrective Action Plan. Depending on the severity of the violations, other enforcement actions could be initiated. The investigating licensing specialist will prepare a report on the investigation and subsequent findings. The licensee is notified of the investigative finding and you may request to receive the findings as well. The report is then placed in the center file and shared with others who may want to know about a center's complaint and compliance history.

Last Revised:  March 18, 2015

The Department of Children and Families, protecting children, strengthening families, building communities.