Parents should expend at least as much energy and thought in placing their children in service programs as they do in buying a car.

That's the opinion on Pat Kreher, director of the Office of Licensing in the Department of Human Services. Kreher's office has granted licenses to 907 substance abuse, mental health, aging, services to the handicapped and family service programs. A large proportion of those programs work with children."People assume that if a program is licensed, that's the be all, end all," she said. "Even if we have a solid inspection, that's only a point-in-time assurance that a program meets the standards set by the state. It means `today.'

"We aren't saying parents are making inappropriate decisions. But they're not spending as much time as they should investigating programs. I tell people, you should take as long to choose a program for your child as you do to choose a car."

All of the state's standards are minimal, according to Kreher. "A quality program will always surpass our standards. But if people have questions, they should call our office at 538-4242. We can tell how long a program's been operating, whether it's had complaints and we can answer some specific questions."

A large number of the licensed programs are in day care. Mental health day treatment programs, day care for seniors, disabled and children, substance abuse programs, outpatient and youth service programs all have to be licensed. It's a massive job for seven program specialists, who try to make at least two unannounced visits to each program, as well as provide technical supportto programs attempting to become licensed.

"We seldom refuse a license, although it might take some programs longer (to qualify). We rarely deny on the first go-round, which may change. Our feeling has always been that we're a facilitating agency and not punitive."

In the past, the licensing office has given new programs conditional licenses while they work to meet the standards. A conditional license has a time limit on it. But Kreher said the conditional license may be a thing of the past. "I'd have to think really hard about a conditional license. It would have to be something like it's January and the fence can't be put in until March, but it's cold and no one's outside anyway. Anything more serious and we won't grant one. It's easier to deny a conditional license than to revoke a license."

The licensing office has had to field some complaints since two teenagers died while participating in separate wilderness programs this summer. Kreher said the state is not allowed to deny a license to a program that meets the minimal legal standards, even if it wants to. But feelings run high, particularly in programs for youth.

"The nation's in a crisis of what to do with our adolescents. We don't know how to help our teens get rid of alcohol, drugs, sex and violence. We're afraid and just beginning to open our eyes."

The United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among industrialized nations. It has a surprisingly high infant mortality rate. And "money is lacking in social service programs," Kreher said. "Those parents who can afford it are throwing money at the problems. For those who can't, there's not much you can do."

Some parental frustration, particularly with day care, comes from a feeling of guilt, she said. "Parents don't want to leave their children in the first place. So sometimes they have unrealistic expectations of a program."