GULFPORT — The state has stiff regulations for day cares it licenses — inspections once or twice a year, training, background checks and a list of requirements and guidelines that includes nine steps to washing hands and a page and a half on the best way to change a diaper. But there is a type of day care that is unregulated.

It's the home day care, allowed by law as long as the owner keeps no more than five children, not including their own or relatives. For them, there are no visits by the state, no license and no requirements.

And people in south Mississippi use them. Some patrons say they like the home atmosphere or what they perceive as more individual attention for their child. Some are attracted to what's often cheaper rates.

But this scenario doesn't leave much room for surprise when narcotics agents find a meth lab on the grounds of a small home day care, as they did in Ocean Springs in October.

The only oversight for these day cares is the parents who use them or neighbors. The little home businesses fly under the radar of cities and counties, and the state regulates them only if they volunteer to be scrutinized.

Usually the powers that be don't even know they exist.

With the price of regulated day care on the Coast at $95 to $125 or more per week for a toddler, some parents say they need a cheaper route, not that all home day cares are cheaper. Those with good reputations charge comparable rates.

Whatever the reason, there's a demand for them or they wouldn't exist.

One parent who had his child at the day care in Ocean Springs that was closed because of the meth lab said it wasn't the form of day care that concerned him. It was the circumstances that had developed at that particular home day care that put his child at risk. He didn't condemn home day cares as a whole.

In the case of the one in Ocean Springs, Brenda and Henry Sumrall, both in their 60s, allowed their 45-year-old son to return home from prison and live in an apartment attached to their home, where they had kept children for years. Their son was accused of cooking methamphetamine in the apartment.

Law enforcement said the Sumralls also were keeping more than the five-child limit. But legal services with the state health department said they will not seek a fine for unlawful operation in this case in light of the other "substantial" criminal charges involved.

Health department officials and even people in the child-care business find it hard to make an accurate guess at the number of unregulated day cares on the coast, partly because the number is fluid. Anyone can open one or close one without notifying an official source.

"Go to Craigslist or My- Space and type in day care and you'll find all kinds of mom-and-pop day cares," said Regina Hurlbert, who operates MeMaw's, a licensed day care, in her home in Long Beach. "It's scary who can open a day care in their home. After what I experienced, I think all day cares should have some type of supervision."

Hurlbert said she started a small, unlicensed home day care after Katrina. She did it so she could stay home with her three newly adopted children.

By taking in up to five more, she could justify giving up her day job.

And in the wake of Katrina, she found all sorts of help with training from the Mississippi State University Extension Service, donated diapers and playground equipment.

She even put together a day care consortium of sorts by combining several little home day cares into one larger one.

But that's when she crossed a line she didn't even know existed.

In her enthusiasm, Hurlbert had broken the state code on day cares. And when she found out, she said, she cried.

Then she wiped her eyes and set about bringing her home day care into compliance with the law.

It took less than four months, and though her cost included some home renovations, she said it was all worth it.

She also received a special use permit to operate a day care in her neighborhood, got her workers trained, had them undergo FBI background checks and began meeting the state health department's long list of requirements. Now she's licensed to keep 23 children.

The process of working through state regulation has brought her a renewed respect for what she does.

"There are a lot of i's to dot and t's to cross, but if I had known, I would have done it from the get-go," she said. "It's the best thing that ever happened to us."

She said that the health department requirements tell her everything she needs to do in one simple place.

"It's scary looking back," she said. "Especially after you go through the classes and see why they require the things they do for safety."

She's learned more about menu planning, fire drills, selecting light bulbs with safety glass, and safe playground equipment. She's more open than ever for inspection by the state or the parents who have children with her.

She's more organized and now has a teacher on staff, she said.

Having made the transformation she said, "I've been a perfect example of how to do it right and wrong."

Ocean Springs doesn't require the small mom-and-pop day cares to apply for a business license, though some of them do in hopes of getting business from Keesler AFB parents, city officials said.

Pascagoula, Gulfport and Biloxi say they require them to get a business license, but have no way of enforcing that requirement, because there's no sure way to find them.

"In Biloxi, we find out when someone tattles," said one official.

The tattlers are usually disgruntled parents or neighbors tired of the extra traffic a home day care might generate.

Shellie Beauchamp is the director of First Baptist Day Care in Pascagoula, a program that has been around for decades.

"We do have a lot of regulations to follow," Beauchamp said.

"It's pretty tough. If you ever want to look at our regulation book you would be amazed."

They have 85 children with a charge of $125 a week, and it's not a money-maker for the church.

With restrictions on the number of caregivers per child and the church's desire to keep a trained staff, provide healthy meals and an enriched environment, there's no room for profit.

"It's an outreach," she said. "We're strictly here for the ministry."

They use two caregivers for every five infants, an even better ratio than the state requires, so they have a long list of babies waiting to get in.

Beauchamp said infant care is one area where there's a need and one reason people may turn to home day cares.

Cheryl Mueller deals with licensed centers, but through her experience, she knows there are a lot of unlicensed providers on the Coast, and often they keep more kids than they are supposed to, she said.

Mueller is with MSU's Early Childhood Institute and the Mississippi Power Early Learning Project. She calls unlicensed home day cares "one of those cracks in the licensure system."

But she also said they shouldn't all be painted with a broad brush.

Because of Extension Service classes, and a program called the Nurturing Homes Initiative, the people who want training can get it, she said, whether they're licensed or not.

And just keeping up with those that are licensed is almost overwhelming for the system. There are 69 regulated day cares in Jackson County alone.

The state health department has authorization for four inspectors for the six counties of South Mississippi.

"We currently have three on staff and we are in the process of recruiting a fourth," Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement.

When asked about the Sumrall home day care in Ocean Springs, she said, "The department was unaware that a child care center was in operation at this location.

The department had not received an application for licensure nor have we received any inquiries or complaints regarding this location.

"The only way the state department of health can check an unlicensed facility is when it is discovered and reported," she said. "It is imperative that parents assure that a center is licensed in accordance with state law and regulations prior to placing their child in the center."

Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald

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