At this time of year, you can always tell a working parent with children too young to stay home alone and too old for a day-care center. We're the ones who look distracted and know to the minute how long it is before school ends. We're also the ones who stop even total strangers in order to ask, "Do you know of anyone who's taking care of children in her home this summer?"
Unfortunately, even if we finally locate one of these all-too-rare caregivers, our work has just begun. While most neighborhood caregivers are reliable, hard-working, competent and caring, a tiny minority are not.
Here are some questions to ask before entrusting your child to any caregiver for even one minute:
* Are you licensed by this state to care for children in your home? What other credentials, degrees, certificates and/or special training do you bring to your work?
* How long have you lived in this state? In this neighborhood? (If the answer is "less than three years," ask for at least one previous address.)
* Will you give me the names, addresses and phone numbers of at least three parents whose children are currently in your care, or have been within the past year?
* What is the maximum number of children you will accept? Are there age limitations? Do you care for children all year, or is this a summer job only?
* Do you provide a separate inside play area for the children? Where would my child sleep?
* What are your rules about naps, TV, meals, snacks, etc.? Do the children play outside at least once a day unless it's raining? Is there a safe, fenced-in, well-equipped outside play area for them?
* Can you describe a typical day with the children in your care? What schedules do they follow? What kinds of activities do you offer?
* Are there minimum requirements for the children? Must they be toilet-trained, for example? Do you insist that all children have recent physical examinations and up-to-date vaccinations?
* What does your fee include -- and not include? What's your policy about occasional, unavoidable late pickups? Will you be taking a vacation this summer -- and what's your policy about my vacation time? Do you expect to be paid if my child is home sick?
* What if my child gets sick while she's at your house? Is there a room where she can rest until someone picks her up? Do you have a physician on call who will see injured or seriously sick children immediately?
* Do you mind if I give your Social Security and driver's license numbers to the local police department and this state's attorney general's office to confirm that you have never been convicted of a felony?
* Do I also have your permission to ask this state's attorney general's office if you have ever been arrested on a charge of child abuse or negligence?
* What are your discipline techniques? How do you handle tantrums, squabbles, disobedience, lying, etc.? Do you ever spank children? Would you be willing not to use corporal punishment on my child, if this is my wish?
Finally, even if a caregiver answers all your questions satisfactorily, do take the time to check her credentials and references carefully. Listen carefully to what your own good instincts tell you about this person, as well; because in the long run, they're almost always accurate.
Questions and comments for Niki Scott should be addressed Working Woman, Features Department, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.