The Importance of Policies and Contracts for Home Day Care Providers
The nature of a Home Day Care is such that a provider is often entering into a business arrangement with those they are closest to. The first reaction of many providers to using a written contract with people they know is that it is unnecessary-after all, these are friends and neighbors, even family members; these are the people they socialize with, the people they turn to when they need a hand. Surely it is not necessary to be as cold and formal with these as people as to ask them to sign a contract! Yet, the very reasons that one might expect not to need a contract may in fact be the very best reasons for writing and signing one.
Contracts are necessary mainly for two reasons: boundaries and protection.
You cannot assume that parents entering into a child care arrangement with you will know all of what you expect from them in regards to times and days you will provide care or compensation you expect to receive. What’s more, there is a lot of information to pass on to cover all of the needs of, and all of the contingencies in caring for just one child. Having this information in writing will provide a reference for parents of children in your care. Although you may be apprehensive about the formality of handing your friends and relatives handbooks and contracts, you will find many parents appreciate getting this information, as it takes away the awkwardness and guesswork involved in a business relationship between friends.
The first step you should take when setting up your child care business is to determine what care you will provide and when. Use this as the basis for a clear handbook outlining all of your policies and expectations. You need to cover what your hours of operation will be, if you plan to provide lunches and snacks or if parents need to provide them from home. Also consider if you will write a policy regarding late pick up and if you will charge a late fee, sick child care and how you feel about children bringing items from home. Discuss any supplies you expect parents to provide (bedding for nap time, extra clothes in case the child has an accident or gets wet or dirty). At some point you will want to discuss your philosophy of child care and behavior management (discipline); this will open communication and help both parties gain an understanding of how compatible your styles of child rearing are. You should think about policies for who is allowed to pick a child up from daycare and if identification will be necessary. Discuss how and when a policy might change. One thing you always need to keep in mind, however, is that your policies can never be in violation of a state law or regulation.
Once you have clearly defined your policies in your handbook, you have all the tools you need to establish an open line of communication with your child care parents. This will be your point of reference for your contract. When families come to you for child care, make this the first item in your information packet and refer to it often. It is a good idea to send it to them ahead of time so they have adequate time to review it, or schedule an appointment for an interview and go through the handbook together. As part of your contract, have parents sign indicating that they have received a copy of your handbook and agree to abide by these policies. Explain to your parents that this is for their benefit as well, as you believe in open communication and not only do they now know what you expect from them, but they have learned what they can expect from you as well.
This may seem like a lot of tedious and unnecessary work now, but in the future, having laid a basis of understanding will give you something to fall back on to more easily resolve conflicts that might arise. It is much easier to tell a parent, “we discussed this when you first came to me for care, and you signed a contract agreeing to….” than to say, “I thought you understood my feelings on the matter…” and have no written proof to back you up.
Another important reason to use your policies and contracts to set boundaries, particularly with people you already know, is that you are entering into a new relationship, and situations that were casual and relaxed before may take on new meaning and importance now. For instance, in the past, you may have traded child care with a friend, and when they were running later than expected it was not an issue. The situation changes, however, when you are caring for this child for many days and long hours. You will want to know when your days will end and be able to schedule your own family’s activities accordingly. You need to tell your friends and family you have decided to open your home for child care, and this is a job. Explain that you are in need of an income, that you would welcome the opportunity to care for their children, but this is a business and you cannot afford to fill your slots for free doing favors for your friends while turning away paying customers. When you phrase in terms of your needs and goals, understanding friends and family will not take personally your asking them for money, but will see a caring and familiar friend as the best alternative to strangers caring for their children.
As previously mentioned, it is important to sign contracts to protect you and your child care families. While a verbal agreement may afford you some protection in the event you are not paid by an individual, it is not enough to assume you know all of your parents well enough to trust them to pay you. If you have a signed agreement stating days and times you agree to provide care, and the applicable rate, you have a binding contract that you can use to a) show the parent what they agreed to, and b) use the agreement as proof in small claims court, should that become necessary. Without a written contract, you have little hope of collecting monies owed to you if a person decides not to pay. An agreement defining rate and pay schedule protects parents as well, by letting them know exactly what to budget each week and times when they may need to arrange alternative care. In the event a parent decides to take action against you for a breach of contract, you are protected as long as you have legally adhered to your policies and state regulations.
Contracts need not be complicated or wordy, and you need not be a lawyer to write one. The bulk of the writing will be in your policies, and although these will require a yearly review and periodic adjustment, very little effort is required to maintain them. Once you have a basic understanding of what you want from the parents in your child care, there are many references you can use to help outline and word your policies and contracts. Libraries, book stores and the internet all have many available resources written specifically for child care centers and home based day cares. You can speak to local supporting agencies and other providers as well. Many state licensing packets will include samples of contracts and contact information for child care resources and referrals. Do not let a lack of writing talent deter you from protecting yourself, your clients and your business with written agreements. What is important is that you are open and clear with your expectations.
Beginning your business relationship with a set of clearly stated policies and expectations will prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings later on, and may be just the tool to keep those closest to you, close to you.