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On a sweltering day last summer at a child care center in Peters, Pa., somebody forgot about 4-year-old Alexandra LeVasseur. She died of heat stroke after being left locked in a parked van.

Another child drowned in a pool at a family day care home.They became front page news, and suddenly, everyone was talking about day care again.

America talked about day care when the Oklahoma City bomb killed 19 children. Some voices rose to question why they had been put in day care in the first place.

It's what we do whenever the words "death" and "day care" appear in the same headline: We talk - about cracking down on day care, or pouring money into it, or getting rid of it altogether.

After a time, we stop discussing it, until catastrophe strikes again.

Catastrophe is not likely to visit most of the 9.5 million children under age 6 who spend their days in child care centers or family day care homes. What does affect them every day is less dramatic, but far more pervasive: the mediocre-to-poor quality of most care. This has been confirmed by every major study in the last 10 years.

In a 10-month study, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discovered that most providers care about children and want to do the best they can for them - but they are swimming against powerful currents that show no sign of abating.

Day care is underfunded, undertrained, disrespected, over-regulated in the wrong areas and under-assisted in the right ones - and then, in the end, demonized for not being better.

The quality of day care matters greatly, because children from birth to 5 develop faster than they will at any other time. The strands of physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth are more intertwined than later in life. And it's the period when they are least able to protect themselves.

What children need from day care is warm, nurturing attention that is physically safe, emotionally secure and developmentally appropriate. What they get, in too many cases, is a place where they're lost in a crowd, spoken to harshly, parked in front of a TV set all day or devastated when the caregiver they love suddenly leaves.

The harm may not be readily apparent, but it is real - particularly for vulnerable children.

A recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Development found that poor quality day care is especially harmful to the emotional security of infants whose mothers have poor parenting skills. The study found that high quality day care could increase the security of children whose mothers had the worst relationships with them.

These results did not look at other important measurements of children's well-being - thinking skills, language development or ability to get along with other children. Many continue to believe that poor day care can damage these vital aspects of a child's personality by undermining self-confidence, squelching curiosity and making it harder for a children to form strong, positive relationships.

And what about mediocrity? The jury is still out. But even if it causes no harm, some say that's a paltry goal for the world's richest nation.

"To say mediocre care is OK because it might not cause any long-term damage ... would that set your mind at ease as a parent?" asks Roger Brown, CEO of the highly respected Bright Horizons Children's Centers, based in Cambridge, Mass.

"We know for certain how powerful and positive a good preschool experience is in the life of a child. But it's almost impossible to measure what didn't happen and what might have been" in a program that is not good.

Not all child care is mired in mediocrity. There are many excellent programs. The children who attend are primarily those whose parents can pay high fees.

But why should "excellent" fit only an estimated 10 percent? Robert McCall, co-director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, offers one reason.

"Most child care in this country is designed to meet the needs of the work force - not the needs of kids."

If day care is convenient, affordable and doesn't seem out-and-out abusive, many providers say, most parents are satisfied, because it lets them go to work without worrying too much about their children.

Day care is the seventh-fastest growing industry in America, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Here's why: Women are entering the job market at a brisk rate. About 62 percent with children under age 6 worked in 1995, up nearly three points from the year before. Estimates say about 10 million more women will have jobs by 2005 than in 1994. A lot of them will be working mothers.

To keep pace, the number of day care centers is increasing by 5 percent a year.

"Starting Points," the 1994 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, described a "quiet crisis" in day care, especially in infant care, even as the supply increased. The report proposed such remedies as a six-month paid parental leave and new federal spending on care for children under 3.

Congress not only ignored most of that report, it veered in the opposite direction, passing legislation to cut child care funding for poor and working-class families.

Why do so many parents use day care when it has been criticized so much?

Most can't afford to change. It takes two wage earners to make what one did 30 years ago, in actual purchasing power. High divorce rates and births outside marriage mean 30 percent of all children are being raised by one parent.

Many women simply want to work. And yes, there is sometimes that desire for a bigger house, a private school or a second car - instead of better child care.

The average family spends about $500 a month for day care. For middle class families, that's 8 to 10 percent of their income. Poor families pay lower fees, but care consumes up to a quarter of their paychecks.

The fees pinch home budgets, but in most cases barely cover what it costs to run a center, even though salaries are very low. In national rankings, only the clergy are paid less - and they often get free housing.

Despite generating $18 billion a year, day care isn't a hot player on Wall Street. Profit margins are so narrow that up to half of day care centers do no better than break even, says Elie Radinsky, a Standard & Poor's analyst.

Why the small profit margin? Because parents will only pay so much. They'll shop for the cheapest care within what they perceive to be a certain range of quality.

"Day care is a classic example of market failure," says William Gormley, a Georgetown University political scientist. He says parents are uneducated about day care and unsure of how to demand quality, because they don't know what comprises it. There are no market incentives to make a better product, especially if it means raising fees.

That leaves the industry in the worst of both worlds - criticized for being inadequate, yet denied the resources to improve.

The double bind is frustrating to Jerlean Daniels, a Pittsburgh professor and past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Don't make us accountable with half a deck," she protests. "Don't starve us out and then judge us for not being better than we are."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)