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Many 'Family Child Care' Settings Inadequate, Study Finds

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The most prevalent form of child care in the United States, care that is provided in the homes of care-givers or relatives, is often of poor quality and in some cases may be harming children's development, a study contends.

The study, released this month by the New York City-based Families and Work Institute, is the first major study of so-called "family child care'' in a decade.

It was funded by 10 foundations and companies and involved 820 mothers and 226 care providers in the Los Angeles, Dallas, and Charlotte, N.C., areas.

Participants were recruited in a variety of ways, including through birth records, licensing lists, newspaper advertisements, and random telephone calls. Low-income and minority children were intentionally oversampled, and the sample is not nationally representative.

The study, which also drew on a national child-care study conducted in 1991, found that 20 percent of families with employed mothers and children under age 5 use family-child-care providers who are not related to the child, while 13 percent use relatives, and 28 percent use child-care centers.

Assessing providers' warmth, attentiveness, and overall service quality based on several different measurement tools, the study concluded that only 9 percent of the family-care homes were of good quality, and that only half of the children were "securely attached'' to their providers.

While 56 percent of the providers were judged adequate, 35 percent were deemed to be of such poor quality as to be "growth harming.''

Children from low-income homes were more likely to be in family-care settings of poor quality than were those from high-income families.

Relative Ratings

Two-thirds of the families in the sample felt they had no alternative to their current arrangements, and a quarter said they would use other care if it were available.

The study showed that across ethnic and income groups parents agreed that the key features of good care are safety, a warm and attentive relationship between provider and child, and the ability to communicate with the provider.

Suggesting that a "startling'' number of family-care providers operate illegally, the researchers found that 81 percent of the unregulated providers included in the study should have been regulated under state law.

While mothers did not place a high value on regulation--they ranked it 18th in a list of 19 priorities--the study showed that regulated providers are more likely to offer the features parents value. Only 13 percent of the regulated providers were rated as inadequate, compared with 50 percent of the unregulated providers and 69 percent of the providers who were relatives.

The study also found that children are not more likely to be securely attached to providers who are relatives than to nonrelatives, suggesting that "being related is much less important'' to child-care quality than most parents believe.

That finding, the study notes, may be linked to the high degree of poverty and "social isolation'' among the relatives studied and to the fact that the majority took on that role to help mothers rather than as "their chosen job.''

Marybeth Shinn, a professor of psychology at New York University and a co-author of the study, said the finding that care-givers provide better care when they choose that role intentionally is important for welfare reform.

Some reform advocates at the state and federal levels have discussed steering welfare clients into day-care jobs. But the study suggests that "nobody should be forced to be a provider,'' and that candidates should be screened for aptitude, Ms. Shinn said.

The report also urges increased public and private investment in child-care training, subsidies, technical aid, and consumer education.

Copies of the report, "The Study of Children in Family Child Care and Relative Care,'' are available for $18 each from the Families and Work Institute, 330 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10001.

Living With Kin

In a separate report, meanwhile, the Child Welfare League of America argues that allowing a child to live with grandparents or other relatives "should be the first option considered'' when a child must be separated from his parents because of abuse or neglect.

The report, released last week, urges states to follow the same approval and licensing procedures for such "kinship care'' as for nonrelated foster families, but to "allow for flexibility'' in areas not related to child safety.

Other recommendations include:

  • Conducting criminal-background checks on adult members of the kinship household;
  • Requiring regular contact between the child-welfare agency, the adult relative, and the child;
  • Developing programs to help relatives cope with the stresses of being in a parental role, address natural parents' substance-abuse or medical problems, and meet the developmental needs of children.

Copies of the report, "Kinship Care: A Natural Bridge,'' are available for $6.95 each from the C.W.L.A., 440 First St., N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20001.

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