Around-the-clock child care Working: For single parents who work a graveyard shift, overnight child care can be a necessity -- and a godsend.

June 28, 1998|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Every weeknight, Cheryl Sibiski, a Rosedale widow who works nights as a Baltimore Post Office mail sorter, drops off her 8-year-old son, Joey, at Marshella Merritt's nearby house around 8:30.

Joey plays Atari Jaguar in an upstairs bedroom, and then Merritt tucks him into bed. "I ask him if he wants a hug," she said, "and tell him Mom will be there for him in the morning." And then he's off to sleep.

It's not a slumber party, but overnight child care -- a niche service about a dozen women in the Baltimore area provide for other people's children, giving them a place to sleep, bathe, play and snack while their parents work nights.

The clients are nearly all single mothers working graveyard shifts as police officers, security guards, stewardesses, paramedics, postal clerks, hospital workers or waitresses.

The women who watch these kids don't mind waking up to comfort youngsters after nightmares, giving them early-morning bottles and changing their diapers. Some have undertaken the work because they love kids but haven't had their own yet; others do it because they need a job that lets them spend more time with their own kids, or their own children have grown up and left home.

And while about 50 women in Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties are licensed and willing to provide overnight care, only about 12 have clients.

No one is sure why.

"I hear all the time people can't find overnight child care," said 29-year-old Merritt, who has run "All Hours Child Care" 24 hours a day for the past four years. "I think one of the reasons that it's not in that much demand is that people looking for it don't think it's there."

Until recently, Joey's mom didn't know it was there. "It's amazing that I found somebody; I was relying on family before," said Sibiski. Her husband was in a nursing home after a stroke before his recent death, and then her mother, who often watched Joey when Sibiski worked, died in February. "I relied on neighbors and whoever I could find to fill in, and missing a lot of work when I couldn't find anyone," she said. Then a friend told her about Merritt.

"I finally found someone who's really reliable and stable," Sibiski said, adding that her son, currently the only overnight client there, likes the arrangement. "At first he was worried that it was going to be all little kids there and nothing for him to do, but he enjoys it -- she has computer games that he doesn't have."

Even though the arrangement is perfect for Sibiski, some parents consider overnight child care a last resort.

"Parents would much prefer other arrangements to keep their children at home," said Arna Griffith, director of LOCATE: Childcare, a non-profit organization that pairs parents and licensed child-care providers through a statewide data base. "It's difficult to get a child up and take them out at night, particularly if they're in school, and you just feel better having kids in their own beds at night. Frequently, a parent won't take an overnight job unless the significant other is home."

For Tina Webster of Churchville, a 36-year-old mother of two, there is no significant other.

"I couldn't do without it; I'm a single parent," said Webster, who runs a construction company in Bowley's Quarters, and from 1992 to 1995 traveled several weeks each year as an espresso machine salesperson.

That's when she'd take her 12-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to Deborah Eller's home in Forest Hill -- which she still does when she's on vacation or needs to supplement her income with a second job. "It's certainly been a godsend," she said. "They can sleep, and my daughter can go to school from there."

Not anyone can provide the service Eller does. To become a licensed provider, the Child Care Administration, a state agency overseen by the Maryland Department of Human Resources, requires a criminal background check, physical exam and home fire safety inspection, according to executive director Linda Heisner.

Providers must also take several child-care and child- health courses, limit the number of infants cared for to two and total children to eight, and keep boys and girls in separate rooms that have their own beds or cribs.

Also, they have to provide the children with meals and snacks, stay up all night if more than four children are being cared for, and "be responsive to feeding schedules, sleeping habits, sleep disturbances and age-appropriate bedtime routines," according to a 1996 list of rules made by the Child Care Administration.

It's a list that Merritt, 29, follows. She has clients day and night, and is trying to start a family with her husband. "I did get into day care so I could stay home with my children, but so far that's not working out," she said. "This way, I get to [stay home] whether I have kids of my own or not."

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