Family day care charts course between more impersonal and more costly options

April 02, 1993|By Carin Rubenstein | Carin Rubenstein,New York Times News Service

Millions of working parents make a child-care decision each year. But many say they feel they do not always make the best choice.

Half the mothers surveyed recently by Working Mother said they had been forced to change their child-care provider at least twice in 1992, a process the magazine called "living on luck."

Working parents have three basic options if they must pay for child care: family day care, in which they take their children to a sitter's home; day care, in which they take them to a center where the staff cares for many children, and in-home care, in which someone is hired to live in or to travel to the home.

Family situations, and the choices parents make, are all very personal, and depend on the children, costs and availability of services, among other factors.

While the most common form of care for preschool-age children is the day-care center, nearly as many children are placed in family day care.

Family day-care providers are usually more flexible about scheduling than day-care centers are, and their homes can be more comforting for infants and young children than the institutional setting of a center.

"For a very young baby, family day care is a more loving and personable environment," said Sarah K. Nolan, 33, a sales representative in Arlington, Va., whose 6-month-old daughter, Emily, goes to a licensed family day-care home nearby.

Emily's sitter "is constantly holding and cuddling her," Ms. Nolan said. By the time her daughter is 2, "she'll be ready for more activities, in a more structured environment," like day care, Ms. Nolan said. She and her husband, Michael, pay $120 a week for Emily's care; they also pay $440 a month to the day-care center that their 3-year-old son, Benjamin, attends.

Family day care is not, on average, less expensive than $l center-based day care, Dr. Susan Kontos, an associate professor of child development at Purdue University, found in a study.

Nationwide, family day-care fees range from $35 a week per child to $250 a week.

Still, family day care is cheaper than in-home care, and it usually involves smaller groups of children than day-care centers. After reviewing all the recent research, Dr. Kontos concluded that young children do best when cared for in groups of no more than six.

With fewer children, "care givers are more able to manage in a sane, friendly, nurturing way," she said.

"In day care, you're a number," said Mary Zandee, 30, a health-care worker in Santa Clara, Calif. Her son Mitchell, 2, is cared for by a neighbor who watches another child in addition to her own two children.

"He gets a lot more one-on-one attention from her," Mrs. Zandee said. "She's close, convenient, and she's a good mom." Mrs. Zandee pays $3 an hour, or about $100 a week, for four days of child care.

There are at least 1.5 million family day-care providers for 5 million American children, and about 80 percent of them are not regulated in any way, according to the Child Care Action Campaign, a non-profit advocacy organization in New York.

Regulatory guidelines for family day care in this country are a crazy quilt, varying strikingly from state to state. Most states have a licensing, registration or certification system, or some combination of the three. Many states exempt family child-care homes that involve fewer than five children.

VF "Basically, states are saying you're on your own if you use family child care," said Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign. "Parents need to be very well-informed and very vigilant." That is because most states do not assure the safety of children in this kind of care, she said.

Dr. Kontos agreed, noting, "Licensing really doesn't guarantee quality, just minimal health and safety standards,"

After parents find several potential care providers, they must take the time to choose the right one for their child. Interview the person, by telephone and in person. Visit her home and observe her as she works.

If the person seems overwhelmed or yells a lot, do not hire her, said Sally Ziegler, executive director of the Child Care Council of Westchester County, N.Y., a non-profit agency that registers and trains family day-care providers. "If children run hungrily to a visitor," she added, "it means they are not getting enough attention."

Check to see "how well-equipped the home is, in terms of toys and materials for children, inside and out," Dr. Kontos said. Decide whether it is "a nurturing environment, or if children wander aimlessly all day, watching television and fighting with the other children," she said.

"Ask if you can visit any time during the day, and if the answer is 'no,' move on," Ms. Reisman said.

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