IT ALL BEGAN when someone heard a noise coming from the back of a car in the mall parking lot.
And by the time we got to the happy ending two weeks later, I had become tired of the story of the woman who kept her kid in the trunk.
Oh, I was glad that the divorced mother who turned her 1987 Toyota Celica hatchback into a day-care center for the weekend was finally reunited with her 5-year-old daughter, who'd been placed in foster care. I was happy that rage against a woman who would leave a child in a car trunk while she worked a second job turned into public realization that care for the children of working people is horribly inadequate.
But what I hated was the gee-whiz quality. Everyone seemed so surprised that things had gotten this bad. Everyone, that is, except the parents.
The professional agitators at the Child Care Action Campaign, a national advocacy group, have come up with some extraordinary figures. They estimate that there are 35 million American children under the age of 14 whose mothers work. And there are five million places in licensed or registered day-care facilities.
We know where some of the missing kids are. A Census Bureau study showed that 22 percent of the small children in America with working mothers are cared for by a relative, and 6 percent were cared for by a non-relative at home.
Almost 15 percent were cared for by fathers, usually in split-shift arrangements in which dad worked days and mom worked nights, or vice versa. And 9 percent were cared for by mother while she was working, which I can tell you from experience is some trick.
At least one was in a car trunk in New Jersey with a blanket and a stuffed toy. The authorities concluded that her mother wasn't abusive, simply desperate. She said three sitters had stolen from her and neglected her daughter. She said she had nowhere to turn.
We consumers of child care have turned inward. It's a personal problem, our employers and our government whispered. If you girls want to work, you girls have to pay the price.
We listened to the whispers. We lived with the sitters who didn't show up and the ones who looked after our kids in windowless basements. One woman in the field says she can sum up the greatest barrier to progress in one word: "guilt." There is still a part of us that says we are not entitled to leave our kids and earn a living, that self-fulfillment is selfish.
Well, I have some good news that is bad news: Few of us are working to fulfill ourselves anymore. Most women are working to fulfill the banks, the telephone company and the public utilities. The woman with the little girl in the trunk wanted to hold onto her house. Her child's father pays no support.
Congress just passed a child-care package worth $2.5 billion over the next three years, the first major legislation in the area since World War II. (And you thought I was overstating the case here.) The measure is designed to increase quantity and quality, and to help parents with lower incomes pay for child care. The money goes to the states, because one thing we all know is that we don't want the feds in the business of child care. Given what they did with the census, they could lose a couple million kids.
While Congress was passing that legislation, and the woman who kept her kid in the trunk was being showered with job and baby-sitting offers, another little child-care crisis was unfolding elsewhere in the state, in a pretty suburb called Verona.
Two women who run family day-care centers in their homes have discovered they must be granted a variance to continue to look after other people's children while they are looking after their own.
I'm happy to say that in Verona some of the parents are raising hell, trying to change zoning laws so that family day care is permitted anywhere in town. But they have opposition. Letters to the local paper suggested that property values would drop.
You know the kind of thing: "Ethel, I won't live anywhere where there are people playing with Play Doh and Lego blocks right underneath my nose. I can smell the Pampers from here." This is one way of looking at it. The other is that many working couples would love to buy a house on a block where good child care was available.
Like everything else labeled social policy, child-care issues will be shaped on two levels, in great arenas and the small battles of our own lives. The $2.5 billion is a good beginning. Now I'm looking for a change in Verona's zoning laws. No step is too small if it will keep kids out of car trunks.