LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Daycare fingerprint program reviews mixed: Voucher tracking method seen as discriminatory

LaReeca Rucker:
The Clarion-Ledger

Jackson resident Jessica Purnell, 29, rises at 5 a.m. every morning to get her four children, Camaurice, 10; Maurico, 8; Carlisha, 6; and Kierra, 3, ready for school and day care.

Before driving across the city to work as a cashier at Richland's Walmart, the single mother drops Kierra off at Jamboree Child and Development Center off Northside Drive in Jackson.

Lately, it's taken longer to get in and out because Jamboree is a pilot site for a new (E)ChildCare fingerprint scanning system that Mississippi has implemented in some daycares for parents using the federal Child Care Voucher Program.

After work, Purnell repeats her routine — this time, picking up all four children who are enrolled in Jamboree after school. Both times, she is required to sign in and out, scanning her fingerprint and entering data for each child. Only those receiving government assistance are required to scan their prints.

"It's like they are tracking us," she said.

Signing in isn't always a speedy process.

"I'm on a tight schedule for work, and sometimes there can be a long wait."

And there are other things to consider, Purnell said.

"Sometimes, when I'm home, I'd rather them ride the bus home than go to day care, but that will count against me," she said. "If they miss a certain amount of days, we could get cut off. Tomorrow, I could get a letter in the mail saying they've been taken off the system because they've missed a certain amount of days."

Losing the financial support would greatly affect her family.

"I'm not one of the ones who abuses the system," she said. "I work eight hours a days. If I was cut off, I would have to pay someone to watch them. I can't afford to quit my job (to watch them) because I'm buying a house. I understand they are trying to track down a lot of (fraud), but it shouldn't be held against the ones who aren't abusing it."

Since the state implemented the new finger scanning system at several pilot sites, it has received mixed reviews from parents and providers.

Purnell said learning about the new system was a time commitment that began with a visit to the Department of Human Resources, where she and others she has designated as alternates to drop off and pick up her children were required to watch a 20-minute video about the new fingerprint system and scan their prints.

Not all Jamboree parents are complaining.

"I had a problem with it when we first started, but it's easy now," said Brittany Winston, who takes her 6-year-old daughter there.

Parents have had mixed opinions, according to Nancy Banyard, co-owner and director of Jamboree.

"I had one parent who wasn't receiving assistance ask why everyone wasn't having to do it," she said. "She thought it was wrong that the others were having to use the fingerprint scanner. I had another say it was wonderful because it was like a security system."

Banyard, herself, isn't sold on the new system introduced less than a year after the state implemented the first electronic child-care payment system, E-Ledger. The new system is more complicated, she said.

"It's like it went from having one good thing to one bad thing," she said.

Despite it's design, Banyard said it's been more difficult to keep track of parents coming and going. If they don't scan their children in or out or don't for some reason on a certain day, parents are given a window of several days to correct the attendance. That means, Banyard has no absolute record like before and must pay close attention to attendance if she wants to get accurately paid.

"If a parent doesn't sign in, and we can't go back and figure out what day it was, we lose the money," she said. "There were days we did not get paid for in September. Due to the reimbursements we're getting, it's not reflective of all the children. Many daycare budgets can't afford to hire someone to help only with attendance."

Petra Kay, owner and executive director of Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, another pilot site, also has issues with the system.

"We are now socioeconomically dividing our parents into halves, who sign in and pay their tuition, and not halves, who are the ones that need to be fingerprinted and stand in another line," she said. "That's just blatent discrimination on a socioeconomic basis."

She said parents feel uncomfortable.

"They are concerned about what will happen with their information," she said. "Is Big Brother watching you? Absolutely. Even though the DHS (Department of Human Services) assures the participants that nothing will happen with the finger scans, and that all finger scans are discarded, parents are still nervous.

"It's put me as a provider right in the middle. I'm the enforcer now. I'm saying if you don't scan, your child can't come, and that is not a position to be in. It is not the child-care provider's job to enforce government regulations."

Not all child-care providers are leery of finger scanning.

Ashley Payne, who has run Stepping Stones Christian Learning Center in Florence the past 11 years, has her own finger scanning attendance software called Procare that is not government mandated.

"We started ours about a year ago," she said. "We have a touch screen computer they use. Parents like it, for the most part, because they don't have to remember anything except the finger they use."

If the state makes the (E)ChildCare system mandatory in all day cares, Payne will have two finger scanning systems.

"Everybody would check into my system," she said. "Then the certificate parents would check in to the other one."

Payne said she understands why the state is implementing it, and is hopeful about it.

"It's because of fraud and daycare centers that are clocking kids in and out who aren't there," she said. "I think it's too early to tell how it's going to work. They have some things they need to work out, but in the long run, I think it may work."

Jennie Sturgis, director and owner of Noah's Ark in Jackson, said most of her parents are against the new system, which has yet to be installed at her center.

"A lot of people are not going to submit to biometrics, because that's your life, and that's your information on every level," she said. "In essence, we will have paying parents in one line who will sign their children in and out, and the parents who are getting subsidies from the state will have their fingers scanned."

Money spent for the e-systems would be better spent on children, she said.

"There will be a lot of us that actually close our doors," she said. "I am not sure I will, because my heart is with the children, and I constantly fight for the children of our state. But these are privately-owned businesses, and there should be no way where our paying parents do not have to sign with the finger scan and other parents do. It's strictly a sign of discrimination."

Carole Cannon, communications consultant with the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said about 7,000 to 10,000 people in Louisiana dropped out the first year that the finger-scanning system was implemented there because they were concerned about what was going to happen with their information.

"They say they are not going to share the information with law enforcement agencies, but people are not convinced," Cannon said. "What if it gets used for something we can't imagine right now? We're just concerned about security issues, and they are not having a conversation with parents and providers."

Single mother Marissa Scruggs, 27, takes her two children, Davon, 4, and Damari, 3, to Noah's Ark each day before going to work at Comcast. The fingerprint system has not been implemented at Noah's Ark, but word is it's coming, and Scruggs is apprehensive.

"It's almost an invasion of privacy when you are being asked to be fingerprinted," she said. "It's almost like you're being booked into a correctional facility.

"Instead of spending money on this high-tech equipment, that money could be put into day cares to teach children foreign languages and about computers. ."

Scruggs said it would be difficult to provide for her children without child-care assistance.

"I would be looking at $10,000 plus a year for my kids to be able to go to school just so I would be able to work," she said. "If you rebel against it, you either take your kids out or pay out of pocket. Taking them out, of course, you won't work. Then it's food stamps, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) etc. It's almost like there's no balance."


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker