With the new school year just weeks away, and some already underway, many parents are also searching for new day care options for their preschoolers.

The Child Care Licensing division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is urging parents to do some homework before putting their children in someone else's hands and choose childcare that's following the law.

The goals of the annual "Don't be in the Dark About Child Care" campaign are to educate parents about the dangers of illegal childcare and to encourage centers and homes that aren't operating legally to step into the light and get a permit.

Last year 11 children died in illegal care, DFPS officials said. That's in addition to 13 in 2007, 18 in 2006, 10 in 2005, and 8 in 2004.

"Unfortunately, many child care operations have gone underground," said Sasha Rasco, DFPS Assistant Commissioner for Child Care Licensing. "These illegal operations may seem attractive to parents. They may cost less, but there are no checks and balances to protect your children."

By contrast, licensed and registered day care must follow state health and safety standards, meet educational requirements, and undergo periodic inspections. Listed family homes, which care for three or fewer children, don't have to meet those conditions but do get background checks on people who live in the home.

Parents can easily check an online DFPS database, at www.txchildcaresearch.org, to make sure their day care is legal and to research its record. Those without Internet access can call (886) TX-CHILD for assistance.

Child Care Licensing is also sending information to doctors, public libraries, and day care centers urging them to help get the word out. The public will find useful information and materials at www.dontbeinthedark.org.

Child care providers can also use this website to find out how to get licensed.

Texas Child Care Facts

There are about a million Texas children in regulated child care. The number of illegal day care operations and number of children in illegal care are unknown. Licensed child care centers: 9,309 Licensed homes: 1,564 Registered child care homes: 6,895 Listed homes: 7,214 Total number of facilities: 26,026 Capacity, all facilities: 1,030,395 children

Source: Texas Department of Family and Protective Services