Published Online: April 16, 1997

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In the Arms of the Providers

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Child care and early-childhood education come in an array of situations and settings, often leaving parents confused about what may be best for their child.

Norma Johnson is hopeful about the newest child-care center she's chosen for her children, 3-year Katrina and 1-year old Michael.

But that sense of relief has only come after a series of disappointing experiences with other child-care arrangements--high staff turnover, a lack of professionalism, and little stimulation for her children.

"I got tired of asking how my child's day was and being told, 'I don't know,'" says Johnson, a pharmacist who lives in Hilliard, Ohio, a fast-growing suburb of Columbus. "All I want is to leave my kids feeling like they are with someone who would take care of them like I do."

About 150 miles north in Cleveland, Sandra Daniels has decided to pull 4-year-old Keianna out of Head Start, even though she knows how much the program has helped her four older children. Daniels needs to go to school full time so she can complete her General Educational Development certificate and find a job, but her daughter's Head Start class operates only half-day. She doesn't know yet who will care for Keianna when she goes to school.

Jolana Bean, a receptionist who lives in Searsport, Maine, a rural town near the coast, describes her 17-month-old son, Austin, as a bright boy who loves to learn and likes to draw.

She's pleased with the licensed family-child-care provider who has cared for Austin since he was an infant. "Her attention is on the children and doing things with them to get their minds working," Bean says.

But she worries sometimes about losing the child-care voucher that pays two-thirds of the cost of Austin's care. She's relied on relatives before for child care but doesn't want to have to resort to that again.

"A grandmother should remain a grandmother," she says. "If we lost this voucher, it would really, really create a hardship on us."

The first national education goal says that in just three years, children like these should enter school with the skills to succeed.

But the child care that parents and taxpayers pay for often doesn't measure up to the rich learning experiences and nurturing relationships that experts say children need to thrive.

Every day, scores of parents try to navigate through a confusing maze of child-care services, searching for affordable programs and reliable providers. In 1993, 9.9 million children under age 5 were in need of care while their parents were at work, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. And with many mothers returning to work soon after having their babies, the demand for infant care is sometimes impossible to meet.

Child-care resource-and-referral agencies nationwide understand these issues better than anyone.

"How can you spend a lot of your time educating people about quality child care when they can't even get child care?" asks Cathy Forsythe, the director of Link Child Care Resource and Referral in Huntington, W.Va.

So, in addition to referring parents to providers, such agencies strive to increase the supply of programs and improve existing ones.

Numerous reports show that far too few child-care settings are contributing to children's social, emotional, and intellectual development.

A 1996 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a nonprofit foundation, said that as many as one-third of all children enter kindergarten already needing help to catch up with their peers. ("Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10," Sept. 18, 1996.)

But recent discoveries in brain research, capturing the covers of the nation's leading newsmagazines, have elevated the importance of the early years and the needs of very young children.

Advocates fighting to blur the line between custodial care and early education are beginning to feel like their message is being heard.

"We're evolving to an understanding on a larger scale that children are learning from when they're first born," said Lynson Moore Bobo, a senior project associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers who has worked with Oregon and Ohio to design better systems of child care and early education.

Child care and early-childhood education is provided through a puzzling mix of public and private options, including centers, family-day-care homes, nannies, Head Start, preschools, and church-based programs. On top of that, many families turn to relatives and neighbors to care for their children.

A 1995 study by a team of researchers from four universities found that child care at most of the nation's centers is of poor to mediocre quality, with almost half of infants and toddlers being cared for in low-quality settings. High quality, defined by the study, "Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers," means children's health and safety needs are met, they have warm relationships with caregivers, and they are learning. ("Child-Care Study Finds Mediocre Level of Services," Feb. 8, 1995.)

The 1994 "Study of Children in Family Child Care and Relative Care," by the New York-based Families and Work Institute, concludes that only half the children they observed in homes were securely attached to their providers and that only 9 percent of the homes studied were of good quality. ("Many 'Family Child Care' Settings Inadequate, Study Finds," April 20, 1994.)

Surprisingly, being cared for by an aunt or a grandmother or other relative doesn't mean a child is more likely to have a warm relationship with his or her provider, the report says, because a majority of relatives who care for children do it to help the mothers, not because it is their chosen line of work.

'We're talking about creating a system in which all children, 0 through 5, would have access to services should their parents need or desire them.'

Sharon Lynn Kagan
Researcher and child development expert
Yale University

It also found that providers who are state or locally regulated are more likely to be sensitive and responsive, plan activities for children, and attend training sessions, even though parents did not list regulation as one of their highest priorities.

Earlier this month, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health, released a study showing that high-quality day care enhances children's early language use and thinking skills ("Intellectual Development Linked to Quality of Day Care," in This Week's News.)

"To parents, training and regulation sound bureaucratic," says Ellen Galinsky, the president of the Families and Work Institute, a research organization in New York City. "We need a new way in the field to communicate with parents."

Vast numbers of parents, however, leave their children with providers who are either operating illegally or fall into their state's exempt-from-regulation categories. Some states require all family-child-care providers to be registered, while others allow providers to keep several children legally without undergoing a background check or ensuring that their homes are safe.

While it's easy to blame individual providers and center directors for the lack of quality, they're not the true problem, according to Yale University researcher Sharon Lynn Kagan, a child-development expert and a voice for those who want better-funded, more seamless pathways of early care and education in the United States.

Model early-childhood programs exist. But what's missing is a solid foundation of governance, staff development, resource-and-referral services, and financial support, says Kagan, who will release a major report next month outlining recommendations on how to build this structure. (See the accompanying story, "Building Better Childhood Services," in This Week's News.)

"We're talking about creating a system in which all children, 0 through 5, would have access to services should their parents need or desire them," she says.

Kagan is one of a few researchers who has also investigated the possible means by which such a system would be publicly funded. Estimates range from $25.5 billion to $116 billion, with suggested sources including payroll taxes, individual and corporate taxes, and sales taxes.

"We've got a responsibility to talk about what we really want, and then attach a price tag," Kagan said recently to a packed auditorium of child-care resource and referral workers. But she added: "We really are not sure what the public will is now for increasing funding for young children."

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