Maryland joins at least 22 other states in putting inspection and complaint records online, in part or in full. Virginia's system has been in place since 2005, and Washington is considering one.
"We think it's very important that more states do this," said Linda K. Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. "We do not think it's fair that parents are forced to make choices without all the facts."
At the online search site, parents can find out whether inspectors have noted problems with supervision, safety measures, cleanliness, discipline, rest-time practices, training and other issues.
The new system went online Dec. 31, but is still getting finishing touches and has not been formally announced.
"We want to make sure parents have access to information about the compliance record, which is an indication of how well these programs meet state regulations in terms of safety and health as well as early learning requirements," said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development.
Reactions from child-care providers in Maryland are mixed. Some have raised questions about accuracy and limitations.
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Each online report gives yes-or-no indicators of issues in 50 broad areas of regulation. But details are not included, so it can be difficult to assess a problem's severity.
Parents who want more information have to phone or write licensing officials.
"It's very vague," said Jennifer Nizer, president of the Maryland State Child Care Association, which represents child-care centers in the state. "There needs to be a little more information than yes or no."
Nizer gave the example of a child-care provider who had a chipped countertop and was cited in the system under building safety.
The lack of detail, Nizer said, "leaves a lot of possibilities open that could be much worse than what it really was."
Maryland officials said it would not be possible to include more detailed reports until state inspections are conducted electronically. A pilot program is planned.
Virginia's is a more detailed approach. Its online records include descriptions of issues that were found: an unlocked medicine cabinet; an ungated pool; a caregiver chatting on a cell phone; missing health records; and in one case children restrained with snap belts and cords. The records also show the corrective action to be taken.
In Virginia, "it's been incredibly well-received," said Marianne McGhee of the Department of Social Services. "We get comments from parents and caretakers; they get excited that they don't have to just go by word of mouth on a facility."
D.C. went online this week with lists of child-care providers. Spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said that including inspection reports was "a strong possibility" for the site.