After Brian Peter left his 18-month-old at a child care center in a Glendale, Ariz., gym last August, he was shocked to find his daughter wandering the main floor 20 minutes later, without any adult supervision or knowledge of the staff.
His wife, Kristyna, tried to file an official complaint with an Arizona agency but was told that dropoff day care centers, like gyms, aren't subject to oversight from the state.
"The staff wasn't looking for her," she said. "I thought that had to be a violation."
After many calls to the gym and its corporate office, Kristyna and Brian Peter say, they were awarded a $429 refund on the unused portion of their gym membership. They now exercise at another facility in Peoria, Ariz., where they have not encountered any problems leaving their children.
Their experience at the first gym highlights the reality at many child care centers in health clubs nationwide: an absence of state health and safety regulations. In New York, at least two incidents spawned legal action last month, when parents argued their children suffered injuries while at child care facilities in gyms.
Although it's unclear how many child care centers in gyms are unregulated nationwide, 12 states, including Alabama and Indiana, grant license exemptions to child care centers with short-term care, according to Child Care Aware of America, a child care advocacy group. Eight states, including Illinois and Michigan, exempt centers from licenses if a parent is located on the premises. Centers at gyms can fall into either category.
"It's up to the gyms, and some do a better job than others," said Michelle McCready, a senior policy adviser at Child Care Aware of America. "The provider may not know the child or routine health and safety measures."
If a child care center is unlicensed, it's less likely to provide a high standard of care, said Richard Fiene, a retired Penn State University professor who studied legally unregulated child care programs in Pennsylvania in 2002
"Those facilities are a real problem," Fiene said. "You can really be putting kids' health and safety in jeopardy."
In one of the New York cases, Elizabeth Chales says her daughter broke her ankle at an LA Fitness gym after jumping off a play structure. Chales accuses the club of negligence, claiming there were only two adults supervising about 20 children at the time.
LA Fitness did not respond to several requests for comment about the case.
In New York, short-term care facilities are not under the state's jurisdiction, according to the New York State Office and Children and Family Services. Under state law, only child care programs that provide care for more than three hours per day per child are regulated.
The nation's health club industry does not provide specific regulations for child care because state requirements vary dramatically, said Meredith Poppler, vice president for industry growth at the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group.
Tere Garcia, who oversees the child care center at Total Woman Gym and Spa in Encitas, Calif., said the facility required state licensing. Employees have to be fingerprinted and undergo complete background checks and CPR certification, she said.
When hiring staff for the center, Garcia said both experience and age are important factors. The youngest worker is 19, but most are 24 to 30 years old.
Although both licensed and unlicensed child care centers may try to provide a safe setting, the reality is that the quality of unregulated facilities is left to chance, McCready said.
"I've seen health clubs with very high standards, but it just depends on different gyms' policies," she said.
Contributing: Ernie Garcia, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News