The End of the Line? : Infant Center Frustrated in Search for New Quarters

Times Staff Writer

For six years, the organizers of the Infant Center in Santa Ana have weathered obstacles common to any nonprofit day-care center. They raised the money to start. They hired dedicated, quality staff. They lost, then found liability insurance. And they attracted corporate subsidies for parents who needed financial help.

But now a new problem has them stumped: Space.

The center's lease ends April 1, and if a new facility cannot be found, the county's pioneer independent day-care center for infants and toddlers will be forced to close its doors.

"We'll all be extremely sad to see the community lose this child care," said Kathy Steiner, board president for the Infant Center, run by the nonprofit Parent and Child Enrichment Inc. "We viewed it as not only providing 36 spaces for child care, but as a pilot program operated with the top quality possible."

As it is, "we've got 25 people on a waiting list, calling and crying, 'I've got no place to put my 6-week-old child, and I've got to go back to work,' " said Chancy Wooldridge, board treasurer.

The board received news five months ago that the landlord, the First Congregational Church of Santa Ana, needed the space for the growing number of Sunday and Bible school students.

"We knew it was going to be extremely difficult to find a space, but we were hopeful," Steiner said. However, Orange County landlords apparently do not consider day care the "highest and best use" of their rentals, she said. "That along with the alterations to the physical plant to comply with licensing requirements have made it impossible for us to find an alternative location."

The board considered space-sharing arrangements, but it was impractical because the infant/toddler program needs 2,700 square feet for cribs and changing tables, yard space for play equipment, extra plumbing facilities, stoves for boiling water to sterilize toys and refrigerators to store formula. Their specialized needs "really put us in a league by ourselves," Steiner said.

A building fund was considered, but "it's a very long project," she said.

"One of the biggest problems we're having in Orange County is that so few facilities are available where you can actually have child care," said Ann Kakita, child care ombudsman for Orange County for the state Department of Social Services. "The overhead is so tremendous."

"Anytime we lose a good, quality infant center it's a loss for the community," she said. Since the Infant Center opened in 1981, other infant programs have sprung up in the county. "But there's definitely not enough to accommodate the need," Kakita said.

Last year, the Children's Home Society, a referral organization, received 9,136 calls requesting day care for infants from birth to 2 years in Orange County. There are now 1,379 spaces for infants in county centers, not including family day-care homes, according to society figures. In Orange County most infant care is provided by family day care homes, but they are also limited, Kakita said.

Even if families can find a center to care for their children, many who need to work cannot afford the fees, which run as high as $125 a week, she said.

The Infant Center, staffed by 16 student teachers, is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday all year to care for children, ages 6 weeks to 3 years. The staff offers more than minimum care; it teaches children to eat family style or provides toilet training, Steiner said.

Valerie Dickey of Laguna Niguel, whose 3 1/2-year-old son, Blair, attended the center and whose 15-month-old son, Brian, attends now, said she thinks "very highly of the center."

"I wouldn't have either of my children go anywhere I didn't feel very confident in the care they're getting," she said, noting that her sons' pediatricians also have praised the facility. "They (staff members) are very loving, and they've got a good program. They work with the kids in order to develop their different stages."

Faced with the possible closing of the center, Dickey said: "With two kids and working full time, I guess I'm feeling there's got to be a place for the Infant Center to go. I haven't done a thing toward looking for alternative care for Brian. I'm just relying on them to find a solution."

Jincy Dean, director of the Infant Center, said she stays awake nights, worrying about where the children--especially the babies--would go if the center were to close.

"When you change the people and the atmosphere, it's difficult for them to adjust," she said. "We really are just praying and keeping our fingers crossed that something good and positive will happen.

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