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."

A 1995 study by a team of researchers from four universities found that child care at most of nation's centers is of poor to mediocre quality.

Programs are inadequate because parents carry most of the burden of paying for them, advocates say. Providers must keep their fees affordable. They risk cutting back on quality because they must pay their teachers and assistants much less than what they might be earning in other industries. Retaining qualified workers then becomes difficult, creating a revolving door for staff and an unstable environment for children.

Kagan points to a lack of commitment from the government to early education. The country's earliest programs, particularly for poor children, were sponsored by religious and philanthropic groups. When the federal government got involved, services were scattered throughout a variety of departments, creating a hodgepodge of programs with different eligibility requirements and different goals.

In the states, funding for early-childhood programs pale in comparison to other big budget items like roads, prisons, and higher education.

State- and community-level advocates say they're also battling strongly held opinions by some that mothers should stay home with their young children or that the states shouldn't intrude into the business dealings of those who run day-care centers from their homes.

While many in the early-childhood field strongly favor center environments over family-child-care homes, most experts believe that parents should still have a variety of options.

"It doesn't really matter who does it. The issue is the quality of the program," says Barbara Willer, the spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

In fact, conservatives argue that there is no need for more government-funded services as long as so many parents prefer informal child-care arrangements. In his 1996 book, The End of Welfare: Fighting Poverty in the Civil Society, Michael Tanner, the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says there's no proof that unregulated care is of low quality.

Hispanics especially are more prone to leave their children with relatives and neighbors instead of using organized centers. But Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, education researcher who has interviewed Hispanic mothers, finds that the practices used in centers often conflict with those parents' values and beliefs about child-rearing.

While support for the type of system Kagan describes might be scant at the national level, the school-readiness goal has become popular with many governors.

Georgia, for example, uses lottery proceeds to fund a statewide preschool program for 4-year-olds. Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut has proposed spending $16 million over the next two years to operate preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in the state's four biggest cities.

And Ohio is aiming to increase the number of children attending Head Start. The state will spend $145 million in 1996 and 1997 to serve 75 percent of eligible children. The national average is about 40 percent.

At the February meeting of the National Education Goals Panel, the organization charged with monitoring progress toward the eight national education goals, several governors speculated about how they could nourish this growing interest in the connections between quality child care and later success in school.

"I don't understand culturally how we got into this fix," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado about the low wages of child-care workers. "Can we bring this fascination with brain research to a sort of national born- againness?"

The message that good early-childhood programs can pay off in higher-performing students is also hooking a lot of corporate executives into the discussion about child care.

"Corporations have a real responsibility to families," says Carole Stein, a senior policy analyst in Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration, which has been involved since 1995 in an effort to entice the private sector into supporting projects that improve and expand child care in the state. Results range from the creation of on-site child-care centers for employees to a loan fund set up by a bank to help family-child-care providers upgrade their homes.

Much of the attention toward these matters has been generated by the federal government's overhaul of the welfare system, which sets a five-year limit on public assistance and mandates that women who previously stayed home with their children while collecting welfare payments get jobs. An increasing demand for child-care subsidies, advocates warn, means that children in their vulnerable early years will be less likely to be cared for by trained caregivers in stimulating environments.

According to a 1995 report from the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, 36 states said they maintained waiting lists for child-care assistance. Others stopped taking names because the chances of those parents receiving subsidies were so remote.

While states are still in the process of writing their welfare reform plans, which are due before July 1, some already are using a substantial portion of their child-care subsidies to put welfare mothers to work. This leaves working poor families with little child-care assistance, forcing them to settle for the least-expensive form of care available, often a relative or an unregulated provider.

States also will try to make those dollars stretch as far as possible.

Providers paid with government subsidies must meet basic health and safety guidelines. But advocates argue that the process usually is as simple as signing a piece of paper, with no one ever following up to check on that home.

"The minimal protections are better than nothing," says Gina Adams, a senior program associate at the cdf. "But some states barely even visit licensed providers."

Because of the widespread use of relatives and unregulated care--particularly for infants, toddlers, and school-age children--efforts are being made to channel child-care-training materials into those homes instead of trying to persuade parents to move their children.

"There's a feeling that this is the lowest quality of care, but there's a real range," says Ann Collins, a program associate at the New York-based National Center for Children in Poverty, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization.

Informal care is also often the only choice for many poor parents in entry-level jobs because they are more likely to work late-night or overnight shifts--a time when the majority of centers and licensed providers don't operate.

Head Start, the 30-year-old, federal preschool program for low-income children, which expanded somewhat from 1990 to 1995, also is facing significant changes brought on by welfare reform.

Because most mothers of these children need to work, the largely half-day, part-year program doesn't always meet their needs for child care.

Robert E. Moman, the director of children and families at the Council for Economic Opportunities in Cleveland, has 100 parents who are leaving Head Start programs run by the agency because they need full-day care.

"They need to take some of that expansion money and make some of those double sessions full-day," he says. "They're not meeting the needs of the families that the programs are designed for."

A variety of arrangements have been made to "wrap" other child-care services around Head Start, but critics say that can still leave children in inferior programs for the rest of the day.

'We do a lot of different things. It's wonderful and it's terrible that we've been working in these vineyards for so long.'

Janet Singerman
Deputy Director
Maryland Committee for Children

Some of the more ambitious directors are attempting to fully blend Head Start and child-care programs--to bring all the children they serve the family-focused approach of Head Start during the hours their parents need to work. But these pioneers have found out how messy it can be to combine programs with different regulations, different staff-training levels, and especially different salary structures without running into a few turf battles.

Just last month, however, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala announced plans to use expansion funds to support additional partnerships like these.

For parents who don't know what type of care situation they want for their child, a resource-and-referral agency often is the only place where this dizzying assortment of programs can begin to make sense.

For providers, the organizations offer an endless supply of knowledge and good advice.

"My heart skips a beat when I look at this," Sandy J. Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, says as she proudly flips through a child-care-training calendar that resembles a small college course manual.

One of the 50-year-old agency's more interesting services is called "reStore"--a roomful of industrial-scrap materials, such as billboard paper and plastic film containers, that become treasured art and teaching supplies for providers on tight budgets.

For policymakers, resource-and-referral agencies are a valuable source of demographic data and a consistent voice for children's needs.

"We do a lot of different things," says Janet Singerman, the deputy director of the Maryland group. "It's wonderful and it's terrible that we've been working in these vineyards for so long."

Vol. 16, Issue 29, Pages 31-36, 38-39

Published in Print: April 16, 1997, as In the Arms of the Providers
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