Fast choice for parents when sitters are scarce

Relief: Kids Time Out seeks to help parents who need child care at the last minute or late at night.

Clarksville

April 01, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Ten years as a homemaker and mother has taught Rhonda Kuykendall one thing for sure: It's tough to find a sitter at the last minute on a Saturday night.

So for Howard County parents who have had the same experience, Kuykendall's new business proposes a solution - drop-in child care.

Kids Time Out opens today in the Clarksville Square shopping center across from River Hill Village Center, introducing a new concept of child care to the area.

The new center is an on-the-spot baby-sitting service for children ages 2 1/2 to 10, that allows parents to sneak away for up to four hours - as late as 1 a.m. on weekends.

Although the business is opening today, Kuykendall said she has heard from anxious parents.

"We hear parents constantly say, `I've got to have a sitter. I can't find one,'" she said. "People are calling to make reservations."

Drop-in child care centers - with hourly rates, no reservations, late-night hours and often seven-day-a-week availability - are plentiful in many cities across the United States. The centers, sometimes run by nonprofit groups, fill a niche for stay-at-home moms with errands to run, or parents who need time to shop, pay a bill or attend a court hearing. Most often, the centers are in shopping malls, courthouses, or large stores where parents remain on or near the property.

But in Maryland, the facilities are rare. Only 14 of the more than 2,500 licensed active child care facilities in the state are drop-in centers, according to Philip Koshkin, chief of regulations and policy in the Child Care Administration's office of licensing.

Kids Time Out, with 13 staff members, is the only drop-in center in Howard County, according to the local Child Care Administration office, but it is not the first.

WeeCare, a Severna Park company, entered Columbia's Gateway office complex in 1991 with an ambitious plan to provide care seven days a week with extended hours, hot meals, transportation to and from major employers and public schools and three custom-designed playgrounds.

But the owner fell under scrutiny with the state amid dozens of staffing and safety violations, and he sold the company to the national chain Children's Discovery Center in 1994, which does drop-in care, but only for school-age children.

Other companies have managed similar centers for a short time, and entrepreneur-spirited individuals have inquired about the idea, but the expense of running a center without the assurance of a steady income has been a daunting barrier, said Janice Burris, regional manager of the Child Care Administration in Howard County.

"The licensing part of it is not the issue, it's the economics out there," Burris said. "It all boiled down to the cost of managing such a facility and looking at whether they have the clientele to keep that open."

For Kuykendall, that is where it helps to be the only game in town.

"This is something that's not out there at all, and the money is there [in the community]," she said.

It also does not hurt that child care is scarce in Howard County. According to the Howard County Child Care Resource Center, licensed family care and group child care programs in the county have a total capacity of 13,822 children.

But 2000 Census figures show there are 47,217 children under age 12 in the county, and of those, 30,471 have mothers who work.

"It's definitely a concept that could pretty well work here," said Kara Calder, interim chief executive of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. Calder said with the high number of self-employed and work-from-home parents in the county's business community, a part-time drop-in service could be helpful.

"A normal center won't even take kids half-days," Calder said. "We have a number of people who are sole proprietors who may need coverage from time to time."

As much of a relief as it could be for a parent to have a part-time sitter that's always available, Kids Time Out is designed to be a treat for the children, too.

The center has one large playroom with a fairytale castle and dragon-theme mural painted on its walls and some parts of the ceiling. Soft puzzles, a play kitchen and books cater to the preschool crowd and an arts-and-crafts table offers activities for young elementary-school aged children. A wall of six televisions hooked to video game cubicles are designed to capture the attention of older kids. In a smaller room at the back of the center, a 60-inch television creates a theater where the children can watch G-rated movies or take a nap.

The center caters meals from the nearby restaurants for an extra fee, but provides snacks as part of its fee. It also maintains a regular schedule of activities for children. Plans call for the business to offer Spanish classes and computer classes at no extra charge.

Kuykendall said she focused on safety in developing the center.

Parents log their children in and out of the facility using a computer at the front desk, and no one but staff members are allowed into the play area. The staff keeps a record of cell phone and emergency numbers for parents, and five cameras throughout the facility monitor the building. For this, parents pay a $35 annual registration fee and $7 an hour for the child-keeping.

Kuykendall said if the concept works well, she would like to open more centers in Columbia.

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