Barbara takes a look at the clock on the kitchen wall and nearly panics. Got to get going! She runs down her mental checklist of what Tommy will need for daycare. There's his favorite blanket and the picture book he loves. Anything else? Barbara scoops it all up, grabs her briefcase and takes Tommy in her arms. She has ten minutes to drive him to daycare and still make it to work on time.
Barbara depends on daycare and she's not alone; there are eight million other families in the U.S. with the same need. They turn to child-care facilities, family daycare homes, nannies and relatives to provide reliable and quality care.
How do you find someone who will offer basic child care-feeding, changing, entertaining-as well as protecting and teaching?
I had a client who asked me to find the perfect caregiver based on this list of qualifications. From her original list, I've added these provider must-haves:
As a parent, you may have a similar list. While this list is a good starting point, go further. Add to it and use it to develop questions for interviewing the provider. Keep this list in mind when making your final decision.
As you know, such a decision will require time and research. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Many child-care facilities have long waiting lists. Ask for recommendations from friends, neighbors, church and synagogue members.
Ask direct questions regarding the staffs philosophy and experience. Don't rush. It may take a few weeks for you to get to know the caregivers and to establish a rapport and trust.
Look up the owner's name and the child-care center's name in the Civil, Criminal and Consumer Public Filings Indexes to confirm the information you were given regarding corporation and licensing status.
Get a copy of caregivers' licenses and credentials, and call the issuers to make sure the documents are real. Check the driving records of anyone who will be transporting your child.
Ask for references and use them-call the people on the list. Spend time interviewing them.
You should feel satisfied with the answers given you about the program, the progress of the children under its care and that the curriculum meets your expectations. Ask for a copy of written policies and procedures. Find out what the policy is for checking your child in and out.
Evaluate the cost of the care. Is it in line with comparable services?
It's very important to witness how separation is handled for very young children. There must be understanding by any caregiver or daycare center of this sensitive issue. A bad sign: Children hysterically clinging to parents.
Children should never be torn from a parent's arms and parents should be encouraged to stay until the child can handle separation, which should be done gently-never in a punitive way.
How are they dressed? What are they doing? Count the number of children in the facility and see if the addition of your child will overload the caregivers. A good ratio of children to providers is four-to-one. Also, notice whether the children are given individual time with caregivers or if there are only group sessions.
Observe how caregivers interact with each other.
What is the general state of the environment? Does it seem organized? Are emergency numbers posted? Do you see a first-aid kit? Is a telephone readily available?
What's the condition of the building's paint and plaster? The sidewalks and fences surrounding the facility? How is the equipment and furniture in terms of cleanliness, safety and durability? If food is served, where is it bought and how is it prepared? How many bathrooms are there and what is their condition? Where is the trash? How are used diapers and spoiled food handled?
Are there proper electrical outlet covers? Are there any toxic chemicals or paints stored in locked cabinets? Are there proper smoking facilities or receptacles in the area? What safety measures have been made regarding hot surfaces and ventilation? Are the appliances and heating/air conditioning units working properly?
Call the Health Department to see if an inspector has approved the facility for refrigeration, food safety, cleanliness, pest control, lighting, hand washing, toilet facilities and ventilation.
As long as your child is in the hands of caregivers, drop in unexpectedly and evaluate the mood. Do the children seem involved, and if so, are they happily involved? Do the teachers seem stressed-out? How is a sense of calm created?
On this last point, I often think back to one of my cases, when I found a kidnapped child who had been missing for four years. When we finally located the girl in a school, we brought a child psychologist along for the first meeting. I watched as the psychologist sat down on the floor and positioned himself to make direct eye contact with the small, frightened girl. Although he was over six feet tall, his eye contact calmed her and she paid attention to what he was saying. See if gentle techniques like this are used by your child's caregivers.
Your child-care choice will depend on:
Other than relying on relatives - aren't those families lucky? - there are basically three types of child care:
Knowing who runs the center and, more important, having faith in him or her, is a good first step in picking such a facility. It's also good to know that state and federal governments require licensed childcare centers to follow certain regulations.
The basics are: Caregivers are required to have child-care education and experience. Child-care centers should have play equipment designed specifically for children and their safety. Programs and activities should be tailored to stimulate learning and creativity.
If you have a child who has special needs, or requires special care, you may want a facility that can provide individualized care to guarantee that your child will be able to grow and socialize in a comfortable, appropriate environment.
Child-care centers can be wonderful, but there are disadvantages. They cost a lot, have limited openings and sometimes maintain a high ratio of children-to-care staff.
Caregivers who operate out of their homes may be able to offer more attention to your child at a lower cost than child-care centers.
Family daycare centers tend to be smaller than child-care centers, have fewer children enrolled and usually have children of about the same age. This makes teaching easier. Since it's in someone's home, operating hours tend to be flexible-a great relief to parents who are occasionally stuck at work or in traffic.
The disadvantage is that the government doesn't regulate such facilities as closely as child-care centers. With this in mind, you may need to do some in-depth investigating yourself to make sure the home meets your needs.
Sitter, nanny, au pair-whatever the name, they can make your life a lot easier, since they give your child special care right in your home. Whether she lives with you or just spends the day, a sitter can concentrate on your child's needs, freeing you for other duties. She might help with the cooking, drive your child to-and-from school and even manage workers who do repairs in your home.
Celebrities and other wealthy people usually have this sort of arrangement, and there's the rub. In-home sitters usually come at a high cost. Her salary is only part of the expense; you'll have to pay employee taxes as well. But if you can afford it, and especially if you have several children, this may be the best arrangement.
Still, there are disadvantages. For one, you're inviting someone new into your home; that requires great trust. There have been high-profile horror stories in the media lately, based on the revelations of hidden video cameras that exposed brutal nannies.
Here's another cautionary tale: In Orange County, California, a group of women advertised themselves as experienced live-in nannies. Once in the home, they'd work for a few weeks until everyone trusted them. Then, they'd steal the owner's credit cards.
To protect yourself, don't look for a nanny in newspaper classified sections. Instead, use a professional agency that provides assurance that it has conducted background and reference checks. Ask for a copy of their report on your prospective employee.
“How do you find someone who will offer basic child care-feeding, changing, entertaining-as well as protecting and teaching?”
Don't underestimate how much a qualified private investigator can protect you. An investigator with an in-house computer system can access numerous indexes and check out a caregiver and the child-care center, verifying names, current and previous addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, employment history and educational degrees.
In addition to checking personal and business references, an investigator can find other people who may know the applicants and can provide a fuller picture of their work history.
The investigator can also interview the director of the child-care center as part of the screening process. A person trained in questioning techniques can discover negative factors and bring them to the client's attention. If caregivers refuse an interview, they probably don't have proper licensing or there is something in their background they want to hide.
Some private investigators take the next step to help you make the right decision: They serve as a child-care resource and referral center, offering the names of quality facilities that have already been investigated.
At our firm, we have had hundreds of cases where families were suddenly in need of care centers because of a pending child-custody case, family law issues or the death of a parent. I often have been asked, "What is the right type of child care?" My answer is always the same: There is no "right" kind of child care for every family. It's personal-you have to evaluate what it is you want and how much you're able to pay.
Nancy has three children and she's thinking about working nights to earn more money. To do this, she's hoping her 15-year-old daughter will be mature enough to watch her 9- and 5-year-old brothers.
Every day, thousands of parents leave their children alone while they work, run errands or socialize. But before you do it, consider the laws in your state. Check with your local police department to learn the age requirement in your city (children usually have to be at least 14 to be unsupervised at night). Keep in mind that some teenagers are fearful or uneasy alone and should have supervision.
Older children should be given strict instructions about staying at home.
This is easy: Never. Mail carriers and delivery people rarely have parcels that require signatures. Utility workers don't have to check with anyone inside the house to read meters. These are all ploys adults have used on children to get inside.
It should also be made clear which friends can come to the house and at what times. ("Sally and Jeff can come over after you're done with your homework but they have to head home before it gets dark.")
If there is an answering machine in the house, let the child use it to screen calls. If there isn't, the child should be instructed regarding what information he or she can give out. Never let them say they're home alone or give out an address.
If there's an emergency, whether for fire, police or a medical reason, children need to know whom to call. Younger ones should be shown the numbers 9 and 1 on the phone so they're not looking for a 9 and an 11. For older children, counsel them to not make crank calls (911 operators say this is their biggest headache). A phone list should be handy that includes parents' work numbers, including any pager or cellular numbers, as well as the numbers of the closest relative and their doctor.
When children get home, they should check in either with their parents or a designated neighbor. Parents should always tell their children where they'll be so they can always be reached.
Having to check in also serves as a deterrent to taking a side trip somewhere after school that can lead to trouble.
I know this is a long list, but be patient. These guidelines will evolve and become second-nature over time. Cover the basics-such as which sibling is in charge-then alter or add to the rules as you and your children go along.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.