Contrary to widespread perceptions of critical shortages in child care, many Orange County providers report an abundance of openings.
"In some areas, good day care is readily available and reasonable," said Darlene Milek, president of the Orange County Day Care Assn., an organization of 550 day-care homes.
The vacancies are in pockets countywide and reflect a tighter market for day-care providers, experts said. Some centers, such as those in South County catering to infants, are full, with waiting lists. But in others, such as those for preschoolers in the central county, spaces are going begging.
"It all depends on geography, said Irene Dardashti, program supervisor with the Children's Home Society, a clearinghouse for county day care.
The vacancy rate is a matter of supply and demand, she said.
"The centers that are running with vacancies have built faster than people need or can afford them."
Still, she said, there are far fewer licensed spaces than children who need them in Orange County.
This spring, an Orange County Social Services Agency report found a shortage of child-care slots in all four unincorporated regions of the county.
Low-income families throughout Orange County still have trouble finding good subsidized day care. And the demand for care of infants and school-age children is far from being met in many areas, providers say.
The spotty vacancy rates come at a time when the day-care shortage has been termed a "national crisis" by pollster Louis Harris, and both the U.S. Senate and the House have tentatively approved a $3.5-billion package of grants and tax credits for low-income families seeking child care.
The number of women in the Orange County labor force increased by 52% between 1970 and 1984, according to the Social Services Agency's report. It estimates that 49% of children under 5 and 70% of those ages 6 to 14 have mothers in the work force. Moreover, the child population is expected to increase by 17% over the next decade.
But right now in Orange County, at least in some areas, supply exceeds demand.
"One mother said, 'Your school is great, but I think I'll find one near work so I can drive in the car-pool lane,' " said Bonnie Taplin Burke, director of the Assistance League of Santa Ana Day Care Center.
The Assistance League recently expanded to accommodate 100 children because of the perceived need but now has 40 openings.
"We did some advertising to spread the word, but we aren't getting a lot of response," Taplin Burke said. "Since the beginning of the month, we've had one call from a mother who happens to live right down the street and didn't know we were here."
While there are spaces in Garden Grove, Westminster, Cypress and Fullerton, there is still a critical shortage in the South County, said Milek of the Orange County Day Care Assn.
"There are too many two-income families and there isn't a corps of stay-at-home moms that can take the time to work into a day-care business," Milek said.
South County residents need to be more flexible if they work in North County, she said.
"In Irvine, it is very difficult to find infant care." In addition to looking near their homes and near their jobs, people should seek out day-care centers all along their commuting routes, she said.
"In some areas, good day care is readily available and reasonable."
It is impossible to predict which areas will have vacancies, said Sam Mazzulo, regional manager of Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc., a national chain with 17 centers in Orange County.
"We probably have vacancy rates as high as 25% in some centers, with some centers full and some almost full," he said.
"(In) areas that are quite close to each other, some centers will be full and others have significant openings with no real boundaries that could be used to explain the difference."
More new chains such as Children's World and La Petite Academy have moved into Orange County, bringing competition to established providers.
"It's a tighter market," said Sherry Senter, president of National Pediatric Services, a child-care managing and consulting firm which operates centers in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach and is opening a third in Laguna Niguel.
"There will be more competition with for-profit and nonprofit companies trying to get the preschoolers."
Moreover, providers now say they are fighting over the best staff, a situation they fear will exhaust the already low supply of trained and reliable teachers.
New day-care operators prefer preschoolers because they are easier and less expensive to care for than infants and toddlers who require more staff and specialty equipment, said Nancy Nobel, Irvine's child-care coordinator.
The only openings in Irvine are for preschoolers ages 2 1/2 to 5, she said.
"We still have a huge problem relative to spaces for infants, toddlers and school-age children."
Parents have become more educated about what to expect of a day-care provider and more demanding, partly as a result of recent tragedies in Orange County, Senter said. In April, two children drowned after falling into a provider's unlocked pool, and in June two infants died in a fire at a day-care home without a smoke detector.
In Irvine, Nobel said, "the programs that are perceived by parents as high-quality are full."
Also, she said parents complain that centers won't accommodate those who work part time and are not interested in full-time care. "Perhaps the centers would be full if they looked at that," she said.
Similarly, day-care providers are getting choosier about the parents and children they will accept. Not only are they looking for parents who appreciate their emotionally involving work, but also those who will pay their bills.
"Providers are getting more sophisticated. They're waiting longer to fill their vacancies, to find good parents," Milek said.
Most said the greatest hidden problem in the midst of abundance is expense.
"The average family spends $3,000 to $7,000 a year in child-care services," said Deana Hicks, child-care coordinator for the city of Garden Grove. "Child care ranges from $40 to $120 or more a week. Infant care is more expensive."
For families on welfare, the crisis remains real.
"They can't find care, therefore they remain on welfare and stay home," she said. "Or the children are left alone."