Child-care center's move highlights lack of options


March 29, 1998|By Mike Burns

THE ROOF fell in, figuratively, on the Carroll Child Care Centers in Westminster this month.

Literally, it was the abrupt finding of a structural problem with the roof in its new building that forced the center to close for two weeks of repair.

More than 90 youngsters (and their anxious parents) faced the daunting challenge of finding an alternative care-provider or taking off from work on short notice.

The scramble for help from baby sitters, friends, relatives and even scarcely known neighbors was frantic. Today, when most parents work, dependable child care is one of the most valuable assets.

Let's be clear that CCCC, with nearly 30 years of operating in Carroll, did not want to shut down. Owners of the building, where the child center moved three months ago, discovered flaws in the roof that might make it vulnerable to severe storms, and they quickly closed the building.

In the end, Grace Lutheran Church offered its facilities for the child-care center to operate temporarily. The staff was able to make the shift and keep employed. Parents had their safety net patched. Children found a familiar face and routine, even if the setting was different.

What the episode, apparently resolved for the moment, showed is that day care is a commodity in very short supply, not just in Westminster but in every community.

Large or small operator?

Many parents look to the larger day-care centers for ultimate dependability, which may be less certain with one person operating a family day-care business or with individual caregivers.

Centers may have stringent contracts, and may cost more, but they afford a measure of assurance to harried working folk.

Regardless of the type of day care, few parents can take their business somewhere else, because somewhere else usually doesn't exist. And if it does, the place is filled, with a waiting list that seems to extend to your toddler's high school graduation.

Cutting ties with even the most vexing day-care provider often amounts to a true leap of faith.

The odds are often against finding a better or more convenient option.

Despite the strong demand for day care, barriers to entry into the market are steadily rising.

Nanny tax laws

The well-publicized "nanny tax" laws are one reason day-care options are tighter. People once willing to take care of children for pay, perhaps an unemployed neighbor or a part-time college student, now find the tax requirements too burdensome. Likewise for families that might use such care providers but can't afford the significant fringe benefit and tax costs.

Ever-stricter rules on family day-care providers, who take children from several families into their homes for the day, means that fewer people are entering that business.

It can mean costly home modifications, insurance worries, background checks on family members, detailed lunch menus, etc.

In other words, the things that most parents would likely require before leaving their child but would be most reluctant to do themselves.

And despite enthusiasm for creating day-care centers at workplaces a decade ago, most of those ideas fell through. The federal government took the lead, at places such as Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn. But most private businesses did not follow.

Meanwhile, the larger, private day-care centers are in growing demand. They don't just spring up overnight, either. It's a significant business investment and continuing financial obligation.

Strict requirements

Strict state requirements exist for staff education and experience, for staff-child ratios.

And those qualified workers have to be reliable and like their dTC work. A recurring turnover in staff creates problems with parents, children and center.

That's what happened last summer at the Child's Nurturing Center, a day care in Westminster. Overwhelmed by loss of staff and the inability to find responsible and qualified replacements, the center on Route 97 closed in July, with a scant one-week notice to parents.

Owner Tana Hill said the center, which cared for about 30 children, was repeatedly in danger of being understaffed.

Still, the number of young children needing day care is growing. It is not just a need of preschoolers but of older children in elementary and middle school who have no parent waiting at home in the afternoon.

Maryland has been cited as a leader in regulations for child-care operations and for a private-public network that helps to connect parents with providers nearby (410-625-1111).

The local lists are helpful, but they're no guarantee that a qualified provider has openings.

Child care is an opportunity that, like its young charges, still has a lot of room to grow.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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