The Providers: : ‘State Is Not Regulating Us Like It Needs To’

When she changes a little boy’s diaper, Barbara Chernofsky of La Mesa sometimes worries that she will be accused of improper fondling.

Linda Darby of Escondido fights back tears when she explains that children who have been with her since they were babies can no longer stay at her house after school because it costs her too much for insurance.

And Debbie Sgambelluri of Clairemont bristles when people suggest that her work--taking care of children--is not as important as other jobs because it does not require a college degree.

But their passion makes their voices tremble when they start talking about how America is “selling its children down the river.”

These women run licensed day care homes. They take care of other people’s children four, eight, sometimes 12 hours a day--feeding them, teaching them, disciplining them, playing with them, soothing them, even nursing them when they are sick.


They criticize parents too anxious about work to care enough where they leave their child; a state that spends more for roads than for child care, and a county government that inspects day care homes only once every three years.

‘Priorities Screwed Up’

Society not only gives them little credit for nurturing tomorrow’s generations, they complain, but also singles them out to take the blame for the day care scandals that are emerging as more and more parents pay other people to take care of their children.

“Dog kennels get inspected once a year; we have a national computer for stolen cars, but not for stolen kids. The priorities are obviously pretty screwed up,” said Chernofsky, a vice president of the Family Day Care Assn., which has about 750 members, fewer than one-fifth of the 3,900 licensed homes in San Diego County. Darby and Sgambelluri also are active members of the 15-year-old association, which tries to upgrade child care through referral services, day care instruction and lobbying.

Chernofsky, a former preschool teacher who says the average provider of day care earns $12,000 a year, helped organize a one-day strike by association members on Aug. 29 to protest increases in liability insurance rates.

Last year Chernofsky paid $137 for $500,000 in liability insurance, she said. This year she must pay $655 for only $300,000 of coverage, the highest amount available. Providers without the insurance face losing their homeowner’s policies, she said. They also are required by the state to give parents an affidavit stating that the home is not covered.

Abuse Scandals Blamed

Chernofsky blames the higher insurance rates on abuse scandals like that at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, and on low-quality day care that she and others say is tolerated by both parents and the state.

“Insurance companies want to limit their risk. They can’t limit their risk if they don’t know who’s doing day care and what kind is being given,” Chernofsky said. “Any Tom, Dick or Harry can get a license. That offends me; we all reflect on each other.”

With public emotion running high in the wake of scandals, providers like Chernofsky say they worry about accusations of sexual abuse when they hug children, cuddle them in their laps or change their diapers. They worry about charges of physical abuse when a child falls and bangs his head or scrapes his arm.

“I worry, but I haven’t changed my way of doing things,” Chernofsky said. “I just tell my parents that I’m a touchy person, and if they feel uncomfortable with that, they should try someone else.”

“Parents have a choice,” said Sgambelluri, a 37-year-old mother of three who with Chernofsky teaches the association’s day care classes. “They are in the day care home twice a day, and they must keep an eye on their children’s environment. So many times licensing goes into a home and tells parents there’s a problem, but they still won’t pull their children out. Are they really that desperate for child care?”

Some apparently are. One parent offered to pay the $500 increase in Darby’s liability insurance that covers her caring for as many as 12 children in her home. The increase forced Darby to drop back to six children, for which insurance is less expensive.

“The parents pleaded, ‘Just don’t make me go somewhere else, don’t make me search all over again,’ ” said Darby, who shares the association’s vice presidency with Chernofsky. “I love these children; they were with me all day when they were babies, and now they come to me after school. I want to be able to keep them, but taking money (the $500) is not the way to do it.”

Darby estimates that half of the 350 providers who recently dropped out of the association left because of the insurance problem.

“It goes back to licensing,” Darby said. “The state is not regulating us like it needs to. I want somebody coming to my house every six months to tell me when I’m slacking off. . . . But they can’t even stop people doing unlicensed care. I’ve reported five of them to licensing, like they tell us to do, and they haven’t even gone out to the homes. It’s the children who are suffering.”

Extended Families

These women consider themselves surrogate mothers and are proud of creating what they consider a modern extended family. In fact, the association’s new addition to its roster of classes at county hospitals is called “The New Limb on the Family Tree.” They believe that family day care is well-suited for the young child, who benefits from the close relationships a home offers.

“I’ve stayed with children when a parent has died, sharing their tragedy, and I’ve shared in the celebration of a mother’s new pregnancy,” Sgambelluri said. “It can become a very personal relationship.”

They choose parents as carefully as the parents look them over.

“We see people who just want a relatively safe place for their kids all day; they don’t care if you stick them in front of the television. And we see people who just want a place to leave them, period,” said Sgambelluri. “I take children of any race, creed, age, sex or culture, but they have to be children of parents who care. Otherwise there’s always problems.”

All of them say they’re not in day care for the money. Their work offers them a decent supplemental income and allows them to stay home with their own children, but it’s no way to get rich, they say.

“We’re in this for the children. I see all the things the parent misses, and I think we come out so much better,” Darby said. “Sure they’re making money and putting Nikes on their children’s feet, but I’m the one who sees them when their faces are all rosy and warm when they wake up from their naps. When they have a tummy ache or their feelings hurt and they crawl into my lap so we can talk about it, that’s worth more than the money.”

Sgambelluri agrees.

“The priorities are all mixed up, all the way up the line,” she said. “Instead of pouring money into juvenile courts and prisons and drug abuse programs, we should be focusing on quality day care, but people don’t seem to see it.”

She laughed ironically, describing a cartoon she saw recently that she says says it all: A luxury ocean liner is sinking, and the well-heeled couples on board are throwing their children overboard in their attempt to survive.