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Parents Desperate : Day Care: It’s Seller’s Market

Times Staff Writer

The local PennySaver carrying the Huntington Beach woman’s advertisement for her new family day-care center with a “loving home atmosphere” had barely hit the streets before the calls started coming in.

Parents, desperate for a convenient and affordable place to care for their children, were asking about what it cost, the woman’s experience and how many other children would be there. But mostly, they wanted to know if she had a pool.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 12, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 12, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption accompanying a photograph of Heather Bloomquist and her two daughters on Tuesday incorrectly stated that the children are sent to an unlicensed day-care home. As the accompanying story made clear, the home is licensed.

A week after one Orange County toddler died and two others suffered permanent and severe brain damage after falling into a pool at an unlicensed home day-care center in North Tustin, none of the parents asked if she was licensed--even though the tragedy appeared to have resulted in part from a breakdown in the machinery that is supposed to protect the children.

Neighbors of the home in North Tustin had complained that the children were in danger, a Social Services caseworker had followed up and cited the inadequate fencing near the pool and twice within six months the county had ordered the day-care home to close.

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But it didn’t, the county chose not to prosecute and, weeks later, three young children were found floating in a star-shaped pool filled with algae.

The case served to reinforce the widespread feeling held by many parents that regulations and licenses cannot guarantee the safety of their children.

In reality, day-care regulators are hard-pressed to enforce their own rules.

There are 40,000 licensed family day-care facilities in California. Experts conservatively estimate there are 20,000 unlicensed facilities, and say there is little they can do to bring them into compliance.

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Regulators Overwhelmed

Officials say this home-grown industry has emerged so fast that government cannot regulate it and parents have few choices. Quite simply, family day care is a seller’s market.

Parents either settle for unlicensed operations and homes with too many children or face waiting months for a place closest to their ideal. Horror stories abound of parents going through three or four--sometimes nine--family day-care operations in a year in their quest to find a provider they like and trust.

So when officials move to shut a home down, says Dianne Edwards, director of adult and employment services for Orange County’s Social Services Agency, it is common for her office to be flooded with complaints from the people who should be most concerned.

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“We will order a home closed and then the next day we get 85 calls from angry parents telling us not to do it,” she said. “People are in a bind to find a place to put their children and when we take action to close a place, they feel they have to start all over.”

As day care becomes more difficult to find--one expert said the statewide shortage of child-care slots could be as high as 1 million--the state’s attempts to control the expanding cottage day-care industry are expected to become even more futile.

“Let’s face it,” said one county social worker, “if someone wants to thumb their nose at the system, whether it is ignoring a cease-and-desist order or not getting a license at all, they can. How can I shut them down? We are not staffed to go out and actively pursue unlicensed homes. The legal process is somewhat limited and it allows situations to go on for some time.”

Across the state, social workers struggle to monitor, inspect and regulate licensed family day care and investigate complaints of unlicensed centers.

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In Orange County, there are only eight Social Services caseworkers and each has the task of monitoring more than 300 licensed family day-care homes. In Riverside County the ratio is 400 to 1. It is similar elsewhere in California.

“We just don’t have time to go out there and check the PennySaver for who is operating without a license,” Edwards said.

Susan Sorensen is one of the thousands of people who operate without a license, caring for six children at her Tustin home. She said the parents know she is unlicensed and that Social Services has been aware of her operation for about two years. At one time she submitted her license application, but the county lost the paper work.

“I have never gotten a cease-and-desist order because (the caseworker) felt I was going through the motions and working on it,” Sorensen said last week. “You have to keep in mind what is important. If they were to shut me down, they would be putting six families out of child care plus taking away my income.”

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After 14-month-old Arthur Matthew Griese drowned in North Tustin, Sorensen said she called the caseworker to set up a new time to submit her application. When the caseworker arrived at Sorensen’s home one day last week, she refused to conduct her interview and examination because a reporter was present.

“I think the system is a joke in many ways,” Sorensen said. “It’s frustrating. And everyone I know who provides day care cheats, especially on the number of kids they are licensed to care for. I know many sitters, day-care operators, who stretch the law. And they are still good sitters.

“I understand why licenses are important, but you really have no protection as a licensed child-care provider or as a parent. To me, it’s like getting your driver’s license. You are a great driver that one day, but who knows about two weeks from now?”

But state officials stress that the government deliberately made home day-care licensing less restrictive to encourage more family-run day care-centers to meet the demand.

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“Of all things that we do, family day care is the least-regulated of all types in the state of California,” said Fred Miller, deputy director of the state’s Community Care Licensing Division. “Family day care is a protected category of licensure. It is supposed to be a home-like environment. There shouldn’t be a lot of stringent regulations to discourage family day care to operate. That is the intent.”

The process of obtaining a family day-care license is relatively simple and costs nothing.

What is required is that the provider pass a medical exam, tuberculosis test and pre-licensing exam, be fingerprinted and checked against a state child abuse register, and attend an orientation session on child care. There also are minimal requirements for the home itself, ranging from keeping poisons and detergents out of children’s reach, barricading stairs, storing weapons and making sure fences with child-proof gates surround swimming pools.

A parent or other relative may take care of any number of children within their own family without a license. But persons who regularly provide care in their home for two or more children to whom they are not related must obtain one.

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Licensed homes are subject to spot inspections by either the state or the county and must be inspected at least once every three years.

State regulations also limit to six the number of children that can be cared for--or 12 if the provider has an assistant. Larger commercial day-care centers fall under stricter controls and often have as many as 125 children cared for at the same time.

But as in the Orange County case, it has been the smaller, family-run centers that have proved so difficult to regulate, in part because of their popularity. Although many times they can be as costly as a commercial center, many parents prefer their “family home” environment, flexible hours and the fact that their children get closer individualized attention.

A 1984 study by the National Commission on Working Women indicated that 40% of all families nationwide used family child-care homes as opposed to 15% who opted to put their children in the more closely regulated commercial day-care centers. The remainder of the children were being cared for by their own parents, relatives, after-hours centers at schools or in other arrangements.

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Costs vary among regions, with Southern California ranking among the most expensive in the state.

According to the Children’s Home Society of California, a nonprofit referral service, the average cost of child care in Orange County, fairly typical for the Los Angeles area, ranged from a weekly low of $72 for preschoolers to a high of $102 for infants.

Unlicensed homes are generally cheaper, in part because some operators do not report their income to the Internal Revenue Service.

“It might keep the cost down for parents, and maybe they don’t want to be bothered with government intrusion,” said Merle Lawrence, research director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “I think sometimes they start out caring for relatives and that requires no license.” Then they grow from there because “someone finds out about them, a lot of referrals,” she said.

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Many of these unlicensed family day-care homes prove simply too convenient to pass up, and some parents remain unconvinced that a license provides any more security than their own instincts about the person who will care for their child.

“Just because it is licensed doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Eileen Harter, 31, a Tustin mother whose 2-year-old son has been in the same unlicensed day-care home since he was an infant. “I feel licensing is important, (but) it’s just another level of protection you have. . . . Not that someone with a license is always safe.”

Kathy Alvarado, president of the California Federation of Family Day Care Providers based in Riverside County, said the danger from unlicensed homes stems from the lack of any form of regulation.

One woman in Riverside County, she said, was caring for up to 18 children at one time and had been cited by the county.

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“She says she’s going to beat the system,” Alvarado said. “I saw her at a park with 16 or 17 children. You start packing kids into a home and you’re asking for trouble. You’re asking for not enough toys, kids fight over them, or you’ll have a baby unattended someplace.”

Realizing the state or county does not have the manpower to track down unlicensed providers, some independent organizers take on the task themselves. Child-care referral organizations in Southern California routinely turn in people who run family day-care homes without licenses.

Under state law, the licensing agency (the state provides the service in all but 26 California counties) must investigate any complaint about day care within 10 days. When major problems are found at the site, a cease-and-desist order is usually filed, requiring the provider to shut down his operation.

The problem, critics complain, is that there is little enforcement. People simply ignore the orders and in most cases, the action is dropped if the caseworker is convinced that the providers are trying in good faith to comply with the law.

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Edwards, the Orange County Social Services official, said the only way to enforce cease-and-desist orders is to ask the district attorney’s office to prosecute, an avenue followed only in what she called extreme cases.

Edwards said 28 cease-and-desist orders were issued and nine licenses were revoked in Orange County last year but, citing confidentiality, she refused to specify what happened in the 28 cease-and-desist cases. Only 14 cases were referred to the district attorney’s office, Edwards said.

When the county does take action, it often triggers protests from parents.

In 1984, state authorities revoked the license of Sharon and Meir Drubin, operators of a Fullerton family day-care home who hid 21 of the 34 youngsters they had in their care in a pool-side shed when a social worker showed up unannounced. They had been licensed to care for 12 children.

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Two years earlier, a 4-year-old had lost consciousness in a pool at the same home and later died. The district attorney’s office termed the death suspicious but found insufficient evidence to file charges.

Still, dozens of parents of children at the home rushed to the Drubin’s defense when their business was shut down and asked that it be reopened.

While the recent tragedy in North Tustin has upset many working parents, most of them are relying on their instincts about whom they should trust to watch their children.

“I think that it’s the environment that is more important than the license,” said Heather Bloomquist, a 34-year-old nurse who works part-time at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, where one of the two surviving toddlers of the North Tustin accident remains on a life-support system. The other child was moved last week to St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

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Working in the emergency room, Bloomquist said she quickly learned how the day-care system and regulatory bureaucracy can be “just overwhelmed. The child abuse cases, situations like the drownings--there aren’t enough people to check out all the homes out there.”

Yet despite the drowning, Bloomquist said she would be reluctant to take her two young daughters out of the current provider’s care if the woman were to lose her license. She trusts the sitter implicitly, the location of the day-care home is convenient and her daughters have developed a fond attachment to the woman who runs the home.

“I would not necessarily take my child out of care for that,” Bloomquist said, surveying her daughter’s juice-stained sun dress in the day-care home’s playroom one afternoon this week. “I interviewed nine people before I found her. I consider myself very, very lucky.”

This story was written by staff writer Richard Beene and is based on reporting by Beene, Bob Schwartz and Nancy Wride.

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DAY-CARE SAFETY CHECKS

Parents seeking a good child-care facility may check with one of the 65 state-funded child-care referral centers in California. To contact the closest center, call the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network in San Francisco, (415) 661-1714.

Also, parents should visit prospective day-care homes at various times during the day unannounced.

Here are some safety checks parents can make themselves when visiting day-care homes:

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- Pools must be surrounded by a fence at least five feet high with a self-latching gate.

- Homes caring for infants must not have stairways accessible to the children.

- Food preparation areas must be clean and the food must be properly stored in sealed containers or a refrigerator.

- Toxic chemicals for cleaning or medicine must be stored in a secured cabinet.

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- There must be sufficient play areas for the number of children to be cared for in the facility.


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