Pat Kreher wants people to be specific when they complain to her. She doesn't like hearing statements like: "You can't find good day care for children these days."

"I'd much rather someone said, `They yell at kids at such-and-such a center.' That's something concrete that we can look into."Kreher directs the seven people who make up the Office of Licensing in the Department of Social Services, an office that pulls into one place the individual systems formerly used for licensing by different divisions.

The office licenses about 720 human service programs, including day treatment, group homes (residential treatment for the mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, delinquent kids, detoxification, etc.), outpatient centers, child placing programs, DUI education programs, crisis shelters, and day care centers, among others.

But besides making sure that the programs being licensed meet certain basic standards, Kreher's office also provides information. If you ask a day care operator whether his or her center is a good one, you'll invariably be told it is. While Kreher won't go into details with you, a call to her can be very valuable, because she'll let you know if a program is properly licensed and whether or not the center has had problems or complaints.

"The core standards are done in terms of the physical facility," she said. "Health, sanitation and safety. Then, by committee, we decide on treatment issues. And we coordinate reports of the fire, health, and business departments."

As part of the licensing procedure, a staff member makes an on-site inspection. Records are reviewed. When there are professional requirements, credentials are reviewed. If applicable, applicants are checked out on the abuse and neglect register.

That's not to say an abusers might not get a license. "Only .005 percent of the perpetrators are on the register," she said. "That's because they are usually not even charged, and they're very rarely penalized."

Kreher knows that licensing a facility is not an exact science, and that even an occasional mistake can have serious ramifications. She also believes that, while the system's not fail-proof, it does a pretty good job.

The law creates some of the imperfection. For instance, nursery schools are not regulated, because the law says a place need only be licensed if there are four or more children there for four or more hours. I could have 27 kids in my two-bedroom apartment, and as long as I kicked them out after three hours and 45 minutes, no one would care.

If you have concerns about any human service facility, talk to Kreher or one of her staff. "We guarantee we'll look into any serious allegation within 24 hours, especially health and safety issues as they relate to dependent people. If needed, we intervene immediately." A complaint that the grass hasn't been cut for weeks at a group home won't receive emergency attention, but it will be looked into.

"We're not a policing agency. We're here to support the community and the service providers. We're here to help services comply to regulations so they can provide better service. We work hard with the client before we do any sanctions," she said. "Sometimes, we have to sanction. We might even ask that someone be fired as a condition to resolve compliance issues."

Don't believe that a license is a guarantee that the program is perfect. It isn't. "The license only says that on the day it was issued, the program was in compliance with our standards. In reality," Kreher said, "they know who we are. (It's like driving more carefully when a police car is behind you.)

"The community has to be part of the process, by becoming involved. Parents need to take an hour off unexpectedly and go see what happens during the day. And if there are concerns, no matter how small, they should tell us.

No, a license doesn't guarantee perfection. But it's a necessary step in the weeding-out process. By setting standards and reinforcing them, the office can improve the quality - and consistency - of human services.