You would think that people would be clamoring for excellent child care all over the country. But they’re not. Why? A 2001 survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit policy analysis group, found that most parents are satisfied with their child care arrangements. Perhaps most people are not aware of what constitutes a quality program or of the damage mediocre care can do to their children.
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“Sadly, many parents haven’t seen high-quality child care,” explains Keyser. “They don’t have a comparison.” She suggests that parents ask the following questions: 1. How many teachers are available to the children? 2. Is the group small enough? 3. Do children have the same caregiver for the first three years? 4. How do caregivers communicate with parents? 5. Do caregivers provide any special activities for you to take home and do with your child? 6. Is there someone on staff available to answer any questions about parenting and to help you find community resources for your family? 7. Is sick-child care available? Perhaps if parents looked at their child care providers with these questions in mind, they would come to a very different conclusion about the quality of their children’s care.

State requirements tend to be minimal. “Inspectors come in and look at your fire alarm or paperwork. They don’t notice the children,” says Eicher. According to the NCJW study, no federal standards exist, and what state standards do exist are poorly enforced. California has set a minimum ratio on the number of caregivers to children for licensure, but these minimums are too high. According to the California Department of Social Services, day-care centers can take four infants per each caregiver. The ratio for toddlers and preschoolers is twelve to one. There is no limitation on group size beyond certain requirements on the space of the facility. Research from the Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers (PITC) has shown that the ideal ratio for young infants (birth–eight months) is three (children) to one (staff) with the maximum group size being six. The ideal ratio for mobile infants (6–18 months) is still three to one, with the maximum group size increasing to nine. The ideal ratio for toddlers (18–36 months) is four to one with a total group size of twelve children. The ratio for mixed-age groups from birth to 36 months again is four to one, with the group size recommended at eight. This is very different from the numbers found in most centers.

The reality is that it is expensive to provide a program that would best meet the needs of infants and toddlers. The five cornerstones of a quality program as demonstrated in the program at Cabrillo College (run by PITC) are small group size, high caregiver/child ratios, primary caregiving, continuity of care, and individualized scheduling. “The commitment and understanding are not there yet,” says Signer. “People don’t yet realize how important continuity of care is or the importance of supportive exploration and caring interactions.” PITC believes it is also important for a quality program to provide “culturally responsive care and the inclusion of children with special needs.”

“Many programs that lack in quality have too many kids. The caretakers can’t handle it–they burn out, they get crabby,” says Eicher. “The individual care is lacking.” Many day-care situations are dependent on a bigger group size and lower adult/child ratios in order to be viable. “It is enormously expensive,” says Keyser. “But the biggest obstacle is that people don’t think it’s important enough.” Keyser cites the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, which showed that for every dollar invested in child care, seven dollars would be saved in later rehabilitation. Perhaps it turns out to be not so expensive after all when one considers the true cost of not investing in children.

“It’s a underappreciated field,” says Lohrey. “The turnover rate is very high because it’s not well paid,” adds Espinosa. ” If we wanted the best, we’d help support it.”

THE COSTS OF POOR CHILD CARE

We need to believe that quality child care is important. The NICHD study of early childhood care, the most comprehensive look at early childhood care to date, suggests that the more time children spend in care, the more behavior problems they have in kindergarten and later. However, good care tends to offset the association between the amount of time in child care and negative behavior. Also, the study shows a correlation between higher-quality care and

good intellectual and language skills. The NCJW report cites several landmark studies that show positive effects of high-quality child care: increased curiosity; enhanced ability to share, understand rules, and forge friendships; and school readiness at all age levels.

Several studies have demonstrated the cost to our society of not providing quality care. One is the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation’s finding from their 27-year follow-up of children who had participated in the Perry preschool program. The Perry study found that 35 percent of the children not in the program had five or more arrests by age 27, versus only 7 percent of children in the program.

These findings were very similar to those of the Syracuse University Family Development Research Program (FDRP), an early childhood intervention program. In a 15-year follow-up study on the children in the Syracuse program, one of the most significant findings was that young children born into poverty who participated in high-quality early childhood programs had fewer criminal arrests and a higher level of social functioning than members of a comparison group. After studying the results of Perry, FDRP, and other early childhood interventions, Zigler, Taussig, and Black have concluded in the article “Early Childhood Intervention: A Promising Preventative for Juvenile Delinquency” that early childhood interventions are the most effective deterrent to juvenile delinquency thus far attempted.

Eicher thinks the effects of poor-quality care are already showing. She notes that children who have received poor care have trouble in school and are insecure in adult life. “They have unmet needs,” she says.

“There are costs for children, for families, and ultimately for the economy,” agrees Keyser. “For children who haven’t learned to trust that they will be safe, that they will get their needs met, that they will be listened to, there will be costs in terms of healthy development. Children who haven’t had a trusting, healthy start won’t show up to school ready to learn.”

Keyser points out that studies show that when we fail to invest in children early on, the costs are much higher down the road. “Families will experience the stress of unreliable child care and the task of putting kids back together again after they have struggles through their day in child care. Parents will be unable to work, or less able to work effectively, because of the stress of poor child care. Ultimately, our economy will lose workers who can’t find child care they feel comfortable using for their families,” Keyser warns.

Sarah Stevens, a teacher who lives near Boulder, Colorado, recently needed to find new day care for her infant and toddler. Reality struck hard when, after searching for two weeks, she still hadn’t found anything of good quality for her infant daughter, Sierra. “I found several okay places for Tasha [her toddler] but nothing for Sierra. All the good places had waiting lists.” Stevens went through the horror of leaving her two children with completely unqualified, untrained day- care providers before openings occurred in a center near her school. ” I was wondering if I would have to quit my job,” says Stevens. ” I was so worried and sick at heart the days I left my children with these people I didn’t trust.”

“If we valued children, we would value the people with them. If we cared, we’d put our resources there,” emphasizes Espinosa.