Finding child care is a daunting proposition, especially for first-timers.
In Los Angeles County, the starting point for thousands of parents is their local resource and referral agency. The county is divided into 10 geographic areas, each served by a nonprofit agency--listed in the phone book under "child care"--that is a member of the state-funded California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. (Orange and Ventura counties have one agency each.) The network evolved during the late 1970s and 1980s as mothers entered the work force in unprecedented numbers.
Each agency offers free help to anyone seeking day care. Some administer state subsidy programs, although there is a dire shortage of available funds.
"We maintain a data base of all the licensed child care in our service area--family day-care homes as well as day-care centers," said Lorraine Schrag, executive director of the Child Care Resource Center of the San Fernando Valley.
"Parents call us, tell us they need child care, and we ask them basically, 'What cross streets?' " Schrag says. "We try to give them at least three referrals. Child-care centers are a matter of public record. But small family day-care providers are not."
To protect the confidentiality of small family providers (almost always women at home alone with six or fewer children), the state provides their names only to agencies of the state's resource and referral network.
Patsy Lane, child-care coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, is frequently asked how to find child care.
"We tell parents to spend at least as much time choosing child care as you would buying a car," said Lane. "You wouldn't buy a car over the phone. We try to help people be better consumers, but it's really been a problem.
"People rely on family network-type things when they are looking for child care, really catch-as-catch-can. They never really think, 'Hey, there is a problem here. I don't have an choice and I don't even know what good is supposed to look like.' "
Carollee Howes, a developmental psychologist and UCLA professor of education who has researched child care for 20 years, offers the following advice to parents looking for care.
If you are looking at family day-care homes:
Allow plenty of time. "Be in the home for several hours. Making one 15-minute visit is not enough," she said.
Get references from other parents who have used the home.
Make sure the home is safe. Ask yourself, "Is this a place without a lot of insecticides on the shelf," Howes said. "Can you be reasonably sure that children will not come to great harm there?"
Ask about the emergency plan. "What if there is a fire? What if a child has to be taken to the emergency room? Does the provider have a backup plan? Six children will not fit into one car," she said.
Ask about formal child-development training. "People cannot assume that someone knows to do the job just because they are a mother," she explained. "It is quite different to take care of other people's children. We have found nice, simple correlations between care-giver effectiveness and how much training they have had in child development. Lots of community colleges have child-development courses for family day-care providers."
Know the provider's belief system. "How does she think about children? Look for someone who is warm and sensitive, someone who makes you as well as your child feel comfortable," Howes said. "The last thing you want to do is drop your child off with someone you don't trust."
Howes said there is no clear data on the optimal mix of ages and the best care-giver-to-child ratio: "I think one person can care for three babies. Or six preschoolers for one person would be fine. And maybe one baby and five preschoolers. We do know from the data that it is optimal to have peers after the age of 12 months."
In general, however, the lower the ratio, the better.
If you are looking at day-care centers, Howes said:
Seek out centers with ratios of one care-giver to four babies, one care-giver to six toddlers and one care-giver for eight preschoolers. "You should look for centers that put at least two adults in a room."
Look for centers with well-educated staffs. "It is very important that care-givers have formal education, both post-secondary as well as specialized training in child development," she said. "When you are in a center, you need that specialized knowledge of children to be able to manage groups and do developmentally appropriate activities."
Ask what the staff turnover is and talk to other parents if the center doesn't provide that information. "If they say, 'I never know who will be in the classroom, my child has had four teachers in three months,' that's not good."
Ask what staffers earn. "Salaries are one of the best indicators of quality. It might be hard to find out, but it won't hurt to ask what kind of salaries they pay and if they offer medical benefits," Howes said. "If the staff has medical benefits, they are more likely to get preventive care, less likely to come to work sick and more likely to stay."
Howes added that, as a rule, nonprofit centers "are higher quality than centers that are for-profit. That's because it is hard to offer high quality care and still make a profit."
To help parents make informed child-care choices, the National Assn. of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies publishes "The Complete Guide to Choosing Child Care" by Judith Berezin (Random House, $12.95).
The whole issue of leaving a child in the care of someone else is so emotional for most parents that they tend to overlook the fact that they are engaging in a business arrangement.
"You have to know about vacation policy and sick policy," said Linda Pillsbury, author of the guidebook, "Childcare Southern California" (Perspective Publishing, $9.95).
"Some family day-care homes won't charge you for vacation time or will charge you half the normal amount to save the spot. Some family day-care moms charge if you are late (picking up your child). A lot of people are scared and don't want to see this as a business arrangement, so they don't ask. It is a difficult issue, but you have to deal with it."