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Child-Care Options Limited for Black Families

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Washington--Finding affordable, high-quality child care has become an almost insurmountable problem in black communities, according to children's advocates and child-care experts who met here this month.

With 41 percent of black families now headed by women--60 percent of whom work, for a median annual income of $7,500--speakers at the annual conference of the National Black Child Development Institute said states and communities must provide increased support, greater accountability, and new approaches to solve the growing child-care dilemma.

Currently, the experts said, reduced federal support for child care and the rising costs of private programs are forcing the vast majority of black working mothers to turn to an unregulated child-care network--day care provided in the homes of relatives and neighbors--as the only affordable option.

More than 1.5 million women provide home-based care to more than 5 million U.S. children, said Costella Tate of the Children's Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group. And in the black community, she said, such women have become "silent pillars of support," often receiving little money for their time and devotion.

No New Phenomenon

"Women caring for children in their homes is no new phenomenon," Ms. Tate said. "For years, black people have strongly depended upon their mothers, aunts, and others to care for their children."

But the heavy reliance on this type of day care, she said, demands that means be found to upgrade the care offered. Most home day-care providers in the black community are not licensed, Ms. Tate said, and lack not only the training to give the children valuable early-learning experience but also the public scrutiny to ensure their safety.

"Why can't 'Mama Ross' take care of 10 little babies?" Ms. Tate asked. "What happens if there is a fire?"

Also, she said, being unlicensed means that the home-based providers are ineligible for government- funded food programs.

Citing studies documenting both the beneficial effects of early-intervention programs for minority children and the detrimental effects of poor supervision in the early years, Ms. Tate concluded that black parents can no longer afford to look to unlicensed caregivers. Despite the cost and shortage of child-care facilities, parents must demand that home-based providers be licensed, she said.

It is particularly important, she added, that home-care providers--and parents themselves--learn more about the early-education needs of black children. To accomplish this, she suggested, nonacademic training programs for caregivers should be established, along with a mechanism for reducing their isolation from others in the field.

California Options

Another speaker cited the need for more funds and greater diversity in public child-care programs. She noted in particular California's $300-million investment in a multiple-option child-care plan.

The California program, administered by the child-development division of the state education department, allows families to choose from among 15 types of state-subsidized programs the child care best suited to their needs. The options available range from on-site child care for migrant workers to programs in high-schools for teen-age mothers.

The program works, said Karen Hill-Scott, executive director of Crystal Stairs, a family advocacy group in California, because "the state developed it on its own--we did not wait for the federal government."

In addition, she said, the California system relies in part on day-care providers in the private sector, both commercial and nonprofit. The state subsidizes, for example, tuition for child-care facilities in private homes.

Ms. Hill-Scott said the current political climate, with its emphasis on private-sector solutions, made such an approach more likely to gain the acceptance needed for adequate funding. But state subsidies should also improve the compensation levels of child-care providers in the black community, she said, thereby encouraging more day-care programs geared to minority needs.

Also, she added, "the presence of more than one program type reduces the vulnerability of child care to various types of political attacks."

But under such a system, Ms. Hill-Scott cautioned, information and referral agencies are an "absolutely essential" element. In California, 2 percent of the child-care funding goes to referral programs to match families' needs with the program. The option plan can become too confusing without adequate information, she said, and full accessibility to ethnic communities depends on having referral outlets located within the communities.

Not Problem-Free

Ms. Hill-Scott said, however, that the program is not without problems. Even with $300 million in funding--the nation's largest state commitment to child care--many of California's low-income families are still on waiting lists for programs, she said. And, she added, the money is often distributed inequitably, with most funds going to school districts.

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