The Perils of Day Care: Who Will Raise Our Children?

"Guilty!" Nineteen-year-old Louise Woodward broke down in a Cambridge courtroom last fall upon hearing the jury's verdict. The British au pair had just been convicted of killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, an infant left in her care by the child's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen of Newton, MA.Both doctors in their early 30s, the Eappens live in a Boston suburb of 65,000 where nannies and day care programs are considered basic necessities for the many doctors, lawyers and other professionals living there. A year earlier, the Eappens were introduced to Woodward through E.F. Au Pair, a cultural exchange program that brings European college students to the U.S. to work as live-in baby-sitters. According to one report, Deborah Eappen wanted to return to work three days a week, at least in part, so the family could afford a bigger home.The trial, which received worldwide attention, caused American parents who leave their children in the care of others to face their worst nightmare. It also renewed a debate about the lifestyles chosen by some parents.Deborah Eappen, in particular, found herself vilified as a "public symbol of maternal neglect and yuppie greed" for not staying home after her second son was born. The Washington Times reported that some Americans "described the Eappens as parents of convenience who left the diaper-changing, feeding and other routine child-rearing responsibilities to a young woman with no formal training and whom they paid little." Columnist Bonnie Erb, coming to the Eappens' defense, pointed out that the same could be said of any parent with a young child in day care. She also pointed out that most parents of children under the age of 1 work outside the home.Last November, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that indicated 55 percent of mothers between the ages of 15 and 44 returned to work within a year of giving birth, up from 31 percent in 1976. Some children actually enter care as early as 6 weeks of age and can be in care 40 hours a week until they reach school age.According to 1993 Children's Defense Fund data, approximately 5 percent of children under 5 with working mothers are left with in-home caregivers. These include nannies and au pairs like Louise Woodward.The au pair program has been in existence for 40 years, and more than 50,000 au pairs, most between the ages of 18 and 25, have worked in the United States since 1986. Federal regulation of the program has tightened in that time. For example, au pairs now must complete 30 hours of child development and safety training, and those caring for children under the age of 2 must have 200 hours of prior infant-care experience.Nevertheless, the program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. In addition to the Woodward/Eappen tragedy, a Dutch au pair was charged with shaking a newborn to death in Loudon County, VA, two years ago, though that case ended in a mistrial. Some have criticized au pair agencies for inadequate screening and training and have called for even stricter federal regulations."A lot of mothers do have to work," Doris Rodriguez told USA Today during Woodward's trial in October. "But that doesn't mean you should trust strangers with your kids. Not at that age."Rodriguez's comments reflect the feelings of many parents who, while unable to stay home with their children, prefer that the children be in the care of relatives while they work. It seems only natural that a parent would prefer a grandparent or sibling to look after their child as opposed to leaving them with someone they did not know as well, in some cases a complete stranger. Not surprisingly, a full quarter of the children looked at by the CDF are left in the care of relatives. This despite studies of child deaths which indicate that babies and toddlers are much more likely to be killed by a parent or other relative than by a baby-sitter or day-care provider.Amy Stewart, 21, who works 45 hours a week managing a local record store, was adamant that her now 6-month-old daughter Caitlyn would not be placed in day care. Stewart had heard too many day care horror stories to feel comfortable leaving her new baby with anyone other than family."I was watching TV one night when a story came on about some parents who put their child in a day care center after doing all the checking they could have done, and the child's first day at the center was his last day alive."That was it for Stewart, who says she didn't have the option of not returning to work. Now Caitlyn is cared for by Stewart's mother-in-law in Wilmington, DE, while Amy tends to the store and her husband Jim drives a truck. "I feel safe," says Stewart of her daughter. "Now I don't have to worry about her."The remainder of the children studied by the CDF is in some form of out-of-home care, whether a traditional day care center (usually set up to care for 13 or more children) or some form of family day care. And yes, there are plenty of horror stories.Consider the ongoing, controversial saga of the Amirault family. Violet Amirault owned and operated the Fells Acre Day School in Malden, MA, for 20 years until she, along with her daughter Cheryl and son Gerald, faced outrageous charges of rape and torture of children in their care, as well as dealing in kiddie porn, back in 1984. All three were eventually convicted and imprisoned, though not everyone remains convinced of their guilt. Facing what Alexander Cockburn called similar "mad charges" around that time were New Jersey day care worker Kelly Michaels, and the Buckleys, mother and son day care operators in Los Angeles.Pennsylvania shut down a suburban Pittsburgh day care in 1995 after a 4-year-old girl was left inside a van for more than two hours on a 94-degree day, killing her. A man was found dead inside the home of a Wilmington family day care provider in recent months, while another home day care operator had her Delaware license suspended in May 1997 when it was learned that her son, a convicted sex offender, gave her address as his place of residence following his release from prison.Last October, a 5-year-old Wilmington girl was forced to walk home alone through a rough neighborhood when a day care worker at the child's after-school program didn't recognize her and wouldn't let her in.And then there was Carol Albanese of Elsmere, DE, the former day care worker with a history of abuse at several centers who was later convicted of killing Bryan Martin, the 4-year-old step-son of Albanese's boyfriend. This month, Albanese was sentenced to 20 years in prison for Bryan's death.These are extreme examples, of course, but they are more than enough to give most parents pause before enrolling their little ones in day care.Who will watch the children? It's a question facing millions of parents across the country in the late 1990s. Ultimately, all parents face the same fundamental issue: they can't go to work unless someone watches their children. And despite significant gains made in challenging sex-role stereotypes, many still assume that it is the mother's responsibility to stay home and raise the children. (Some evidence suggests that children do, in fact, benefit if their mothers stay home with them until they are at least 1 year old.)It's a fact that women work in the majority of American families today. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as many as 62 percent of women with children younger than 6, and up to 77 percent of women with children ages 6-17, are in the labor force. Figures cited by USA Today indicate that nearly 71 percent of women with children under the age of 18 were in the work force in 1996, compared with only 21.6 percent in 1950.Not all mothers need to be working in an economic sense. Somewhere along the line, stay-at-home moms fell out of fashion and women increasingly focused their attention on careers as more opportunities opened up to them. (You may recall that Hillary Clinton herself, a long-time advocate for children, once responded to questions about her work as a lawyer by saying that she "could have just stayed home and baked cookies.") This societal change contributed to the increased demand for day care in this country during the 1970s and '80s, and well into the '90s.Factored into this equation has been the dramatic rise in children born out of wedlock over the past 40 years. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one in three babies born in 1996 was born to a single mother, whereas only 5 percent of all U.S. births in 1960 were to single moms. (Recent vital statistics show that single mothers in Delaware have babies at a rate more than 6 percent above the national average.) This despite the fact that studies show children raised by single mothers, on average, do worse in school, have more trouble with the law and tend to repeat the cycle of single-parenthood. Babies born to single women also have a significantly higher death rate than do babies born to married women, which could explain why Delaware has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation.Could Dan Quale actually have been right all along? The jury may still be out on that one, at least in the eyes of journalist Melissa Ludtke, author of On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America. But the issue of child care undoubtedly plays a major role in a woman's decision to start a family on her own.In the wake of the Woodward trial, some prominent pundits have called on American society to take a good look at itself and the well being of its children.Writes columnist Kathleen Parker: "As we recognize that staying home isn't an option for everyone, let's also admit it could be an option for many more, were we willing to postpone material gratification as other generations did." In Parker's view, "the best caregiver for an infant is his mother," challenging the nation's misguided assumption "that anyone can care for a baby.""Increasingly, our sick culture has dismissed the importance of family and home in favor of seductive upward mobility," wrote Paul Greenberg recently, in response to comments made by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. Dodd said moms who don't use day care are indulging in the "wonderful luxury" of staying home rather than having to enter the work force.To be sure, some parents with questionable priorities have put their careers before their children in misguided materialistic pursuits. But that's not the whole story. A great number of working mothers would, if really given the choice, be home with their kids instead of entrusting them to the care of someone else. But economic realities dictate that, for many families, both parents simply must work to help make ends meet.According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of the families with young children earn less than $35,000 per year. A family with both parents working full-time at minimum wage earns only $21,400 per year. One out of every 10 children 3 years old and younger lives in "extreme poverty" (at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level) according to a special report in Time magazine last year. And Marian Wright Edelman, president of the liberal Washington advocacy group Children's Defense Fund (CDF), notes that one in 10 children with both parents working is poor.Many women are essential to the financial stability of their families, especially in low- and moderate-income families. A 1995 study by the Whirlpool Foundation found that 55 percent of employed women provide half or more of their household income. This is true of married parents as well as single parents. An additional two out of 10 children with working parents would be poor if their mothers stopped working, according to Edelman, whose group has launched a year-long child care campaign.Putting aside the debate over a woman's choice to work or stay at home with the children -- as if the latter weren't actually work -- the question of child care remains a serious issue, particularly in light of current welfare reforms that are forcing a significant number of women to find low-cost day care. (Many of these former welfare recipients, noted Wilmington News Journal associate editor Norman Lockerman, will also end up flooding the job market in search of low-paying day care jobs.)The National Center for Education Statistics shows that three out of five preschoolers are in child care each day, and that nearly half of all babies younger than 12 months are regularly spending their day in some form of child care. New York's Carnegie Corporation estimates that 13 million children under 6 -- including six million babies and toddlers -- spend some or all of their day being cared for by someone other than their parents.And where do all of these children go?Quality of care is a primary concern of parents with children in day care, yet the quality of care for many children is inadequate. A 1995 study out of the University of Colorado found that six out of seven child care centers provide care that is mediocre to poor; one in eight centers was found to be providing care that could jeopardize children's safety and development. A separate study of home-based care by the Families and Work Institute was equally alarming -- one in three was potentially harmful.It seems that many babies and toddlers, who are particularly vulnerable to poor quality care, are in environments where basic sanitary conditions are not met for feeding and diapering, books and toys required for physical and intellectual growth are missing, warm, supportive relationships with adults are lacking, and significant safety problems exist.Child care helps shape the way children think, learn and behave for the rest of their lives, with the first three years being critical in the brain development of children. Research suggests that nurturing relationships in the early years are vital to a child's positive development and future success, and children in poor-quality care have been found to be delayed in language and reading skills. Such children also display more aggression toward other children and adults. Furthermore, a recent Carnegie Corporation study noted that "the quality of young children's environment and social experience has a decisive, long-lasting impact on their well-being and ability to learn."Experts agree that infants in programs with high child-staff ratios display more distress and apathy, and are more likely to face danger, while small numbers of children per caregiver ensures that each child gets one-on-one attention. A low worker-child ratio is a basic component of quality child care. Other fundamental components of good care include a safe and healthy environment, and caregivers who are nurturing and knowledgeable about child development and who are a stable presence in children's lives.Child care workers are notoriously underpaid, which results in frequent turnover among day care staff. This high turnover rate -- estimated at about 40 percent nationally -- is extremely disruptive and "breaks the stable relationship that infants and children need with their caregivers in order to feel safe and secure." Day care workers earn, on average, only $12,058 per year (only slightly above minimum wage). This is less than bus drivers, garbage collectors and even bartenders. Child care workers also generally receive no benefits or paid leave.This is not necessarily the case for all workers, however. Susan Kane, head toddler teacher for the Kinder Care Learning Center on Naamans Road in Wilmington, is quite pleased with her working conditions and benefits, though she admits it is difficult to attract and retain highly educated and experienced workers."Kinder Care is one of the best centers I've worked in, but many people applying for positions have unrealistic salary expectations," says Kane, who has been with the Alabama-based corporation for six years. "A lot of people also don't realize how hard day care work actually is." Just the same, Kane, who worked at a day care in Virginia before moving north, truly enjoys her job very much."The best thing about working with young children," says Kane, "is the day to day observations of children learning and looking at the world through their perspective."In addition, staff education and training are among the most critical elements in improving the quality of a child's experiences in care. However, a 1996 study out of Boston's Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education found that while hairdressers and manicurists must attend 1,500 hours at an accredited school in order to get a license, 41 states do not require providers who offer care in their homes to have any training prior to taking care of children.Lou Ellen and Ken Miller of Media, PA, are expecting their first child in a matter of days. They began seriously searching for day care about three months ago, looking through the phone book, following up on radio ads and soliciting references from friends. Miller and her husband have lived in Delaware County for a year and their closest relatives live in Harrisburg. They're concerned about leaving their new baby in the care of strangers, but they have narrowed their search down to two centers that meet their approval."It was difficult finding a good environment at first," relates Miller, "just knowing what to look for. We were primarily concerned about safety and security issues, as well as staff ratios and training levels, and flexible scheduling.""Cost was also a factor," Miller admits. "I'd be lying if I said that cost didn't matter."Finding quality child care that is also affordable is a difficult chore for many working families, who can pay $4,000 to $10,000 per year for one child in full-time care. The cost of child care can easily exceed a family's rent, mortgage, car payment or groceries. For example, the Children's Defense Fund points out that a family earning $25,000 a year could easily spend one-quarter of its income to purchase child care for one child, while the average American family has two children. Although family day care is usually 15-20 percent less expensive than a larger center, the bills still stretch most family budgets.However, as noted earlier, it is impossible to keep well-qualified day-care workers without paying them a decent wage. Judsen Culbreth, editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine, claims the low wages paid to day-care workers prevent many educated people from being attracted to the job, although studies have shown that providers who have more formal education are more sensitive and responsive to the children they care for.Obviously, the amount of money a provider pays its workers is going to directly affect the cost parents pay for care. Therefore, striking a workable balance between wages and costs is one of the greatest challenges for all concerned with this issue.Availability of child care is certainly another concern for working parents, many of whom are struggling to find any care at all, let alone a high-quality environment. One national poll cited by the Children's Defense Fund found that three out of four parents of young children said there was an insufficient supply of infant care in their communities. Many other studies have documented serious shortages of care for babies and toddlers. The News Journal investigation found that parents throughout Delaware faced difficulties accessing care for certain age groups and at off-hours. The same problems exist in certain Pennsylvania locals.In August, Working Mother magazine issued its fifth annual study of child care nationwide, ranking each state on a scale of 1 to 5 in the categories of overall quality, safety, availability and commitment, with 5 being the highest score. Delaware and Pennsylvania both rated as average, with 3s across all four categories. Maryland ranked among the highest states by scoring straight 4s. No state rated a 5 in any category. Although noting some improvements over previous surveys, the magazine concluded that child care is still "woefully inadequate and quality is lacking in far too many programs."Child care and early education are critical to the success of two national priorities: helping families work and ensuring that every child enters school ready to learn. As such, President Clinton has chosen to focus specifically on this issue over the next two years.Last October, the White House sponsored the first ever Conference on Child Care to address what President Clinton calls "the next great frontier" in his effort to help working families. The goal of the conference, according to First Lady Hillary Clinton, was to "call national attention to an issue that political leaders and policy-makers should focus on but which has often been ignored.""What I'm interested in is putting the spotlight on this issue and using the White House to É ignite a national conversation," said Mrs. Clinton. In her book It Takes A Village, Clinton called child care "an issue that brings out all of our conflicted feelings about what parenthood should be and about who should care for children when parents are working or otherwise unable to."Addressing the high-profile conference, President Clinton announced a number of new initiatives aimed at improving the affordability, safety and quality of child care, including a measure that would make it easier for states to conduct criminal background checks on prospective day care workers. Clinton also unveiled a $300 million proposal to provide training scholarships for day care providers and boost their wages when they return to work.The five-year scholarship plan is designed to improve the qualifications of child care workers while cutting down on the rapid turnover of care givers. Annual stipends of up to $1,500 would be offered to as many as 50,000 current and future child care providers who agree to remain in the field for at least one year following the training. This initiative is modeled after North Carolina's successful T.E.A.C.H. program, which Pennsylvania will soon try to replicate."No government can love a child, and no policy can substitute for a family's care," Clinton told the conference delegates. "But there is much that we can do to help parents do their duty to their children." Also addressed during the conference was the balancing act between child care cost and workers' wages, and the notion that the cost and quality of child care are "inexplicably linked" -- a connection not always made in the past.The Children's Defense Fund, where Mrs. Clinton worked as an attorney during the 1970s, welcomed the administration's proposals and urged Congress to make child care one of its biggest priorities in the 1999 budget.The CDF has its own ideas about improving the state of child care in this country. Some of these include expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more workplaces and employees "to help enable working parents stay home with their children during the critical months of life," and encouraging employers to help their employees in need of child care, and investing in improving the quality of care in their local communities.Says Marian Wright Edelman, "There's no reason why all children in this country who need it shouldn't be in safe, reliable, and good-quality child care arrangements that their families can afford."

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