Fingerprint Scans Create Unease For Poor Parents
Some Mississippi parents are learning a new routine when they drop their kids off at day care centers that are taking part in a new pilot program aimed at combating fraud and saving the state money.
Under the program, the state scans parents' fingerprints to capture biometric information, and that information is turned into a number. Then, at a day care center, parents dropping off or picking up their kids put their fingers on a pad, and a small keyboard records the exact time a child is checked in or out.
But only the parents of kids who receive subsidized child care have to do the scans, and the program is roiling some parents and day care workers.
At Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, one of the pilot sites, when Kim Kimbrough puts her finger on the scanner to check in her 3-year-old son, she gets a receipt before she heads to her job at a furniture store.
Kimbrough says her friends who used to help pick up her child are hesitant to sign up.
"A lot of people don't want to go down there and get fingerprinted 'cause they feel it's a hassle," Kimbrough says. "They don't like the idea. I really don't like it, but if that's what I have to do to stay on child care, I'll do it."
Concerns About Discrimination
The state's early child care program provides vouchers to low-income parents to help cover the cost of day care, so parents can work or go to school. More than 18,000 Mississippi children are enrolled in the program, and another 8,000 are on a waiting list.
Many day care administrators say finger scanning is unnecessary and that if parents refuse to do it, some centers would lose children and could close. They say they're forced to single out those who are receiving aid and set up a new sign-in process just for them.
Carol Burnett, director of the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, says providers feel that it is going to be a hardship, or discriminatory.
"The parents who have a subsidy have to come through and scan their finger at this machine, and the parents that aren't on the subsidy program don't have to do that," Burnett says. "So you've got two lines of people who are obviously distinguished by who's got the subsidy and who doesn't."
Across town at the Jamboree Child Development Center, Catreennia Harris, a full-time student, tells the center's director she's worried that she'll be stereotyped when the new system makes it obvious she gets subsidized child care, which she calls certificates.
"I have certificates, but you don't want everybody to know everything you do or everything you get," Harris says. "And you have to scan your finger and everybody just [thinks], 'Oh yeah, she's on certificate. I bet she's on welfare, and she gets food stamps,' and all that. Just singling people out."
Concerns About Fraud
But the state says the system will prevent fraud and save money. Officials say centers that may have falsified attendance won't be able to do that and are likely to drop out of the program. And children who have too many absences could lose their vouchers.
The state spent $1.7 million to buy the equipment, and it will pay a subsidiary of Xerox nearly $13 million over five years to manage the system.
"Mississippi has always been just about the last in everything," says Jill Dent of Mississippi's Department of Human Services. "So we're taking a step forward, and we want to be one of the first states that utilize technology to be able to push a state forward."
Mississippi officials point to a similar program in Louisiana that started in 2010 that they say has been successful. Dent says her state will save at least 40 percent in administrative costs and another 25 percent on costs related to fraud. She rejects the idea that the system is discriminatory.
"Directors can find a way, if they want to do this differently in their center and keep the machine in a different room, they can do that," Dent says. "But, you know, if parents want to continue with the program, this is just part of the system."
But in Mississippi, there's so much opposition that some centers have opted out of the pilot program. Sixteen day care centers are currently enrolled in the pilot program, with some planning to drop out this month. State officials say 16 additional centers will be added Dec. 1.
The finger scanning policy was set to take effect statewide this month, but state officials now say they'll hold off on full implementation until next year.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.