If the thought of locating child care seems as formidable as giving birth, don't despair. There is help right here in Ventura County for parents struggling to find care they like and can afford.
A gold mine of help is free for the asking at Child Development Resources, a state-funded agency in Oxnard. Counselors not only refer parents to licensed day-care homes and centers, but also help them decide on the type of care they need, and advise them on what to look for as they inspect sites.
Nonetheless, it's still no picnic. First, the good news: There is a lot of child care available in Ventura County--about 1,334 day-care homes and another 240 centers. The bad news is that many parents cannot afford it.
"The care is out there, but the cost is prohibitive for a lot of people," said Charlotte Hill, a referral specialist for Child Development Resources. The shortage is in affordable quality day care.
Some clients are able to pay only $50 a week, or if they have two or three children they might stretch it to $70 or $80 a week, she said. The reality is that the average home-based day care in the county runs $75 to $95 a week. For centers, the cost is $85 to $100 a week, she said.
"You can't expect someone making a living at this to do it for nothing," Hill said in defense of the operators.
The cost varies according to location. In the Conejo Valley, some home day-care centers cost up to $125 a week. In Oxnard, a spot can be had for as little as $60 a week.
Availability varies by location too, she said. Oxnard has plenty of openings, while space is tighter in the Conejo Valley. Many locations report vacancies, but operators said that might be due to summer turnover.
The highest demand is for infant care. Unfortunately, it is in short supply in the county. It is more costly to provide, and as a result more expensive for parents.
"There are waiting lists at almost every infant center," said Sylvia Preston, referrals manager at Child Development Resources. So tight is space that mothers-to-be call the agency months before their child is born to get on waiting lists.
There are other organizations and agencies ready to help parents find child care. Five day-care associations around the county refer parents at no cost to day-care providers who are members.
In Ventura, a pamphlet available at City Hall provides a listing of 43 child-care centers. It also offers information about licensing of homes and centers, how to choose a location, and other helpful resources. Other cities are working on similar aids.
A child-care directory covering more than 60 homes and centers in the Conejo Valley is available for $3 at Los Robles Regional Medical Center's personnel office. The booklet gives hours, fees and other information to make the selection process smoother.
Still, it won't be easy and it takes time. It helps to know some of the licensing requirements. A home-based operator is limited to six children or four infants under the age of 2. With a helper, the home can serve up to 12, but only four children can be infants.
In a day-care center, there must be one child-care attendant for every four children under the age of 2. For preschool-age children, the ratio is one attendant per 12 children, and for school-age, one attendant per 14 children.
In checking a facility, parents should make sure the ratios are not being exceeded. But there are many other things to ask about and notice.
KinderCare, a national chain with centers in Ventura County, even gives prospective customers a checklist with 32 items to consider. The company, one of few that offer infant care, suggests checking to see if there are formal procedures for the release of a child, and even noting such things as menus, nap areas, educational programs and the warmth of staff members.
Before deciding on a home or center, parents would be wise to take their mission one step further. They can call the California Department of Social Services to find out if there are any substantiated complaints against a day-care center.
A telephone call to the Ventura County Public Social Services Agency will glean the same information for day-care homes.
A home-based day-care provider does not need a license if it is caring for the child or children of only one unrelated family. Beyond that, a license is required, according to Dennis Trenten, licensing supervisor for the county. The procedure includes a fingerprint check to ensure that a prospective operator does not have a criminal record, and the name is also checked against the state's child-abuse index. A check of the facility ensures that it is clean and safe.
But there are at least as many unlicensed day-care homes as there are those with licenses, Trenton said. Although it costs nothing to obtain a license, many home-based operators remain unlicensed because their child load exceeds licensing limits, he said. They care for more than six children and can offer the care at a lower price.
"Many parents are desperately looking for the lowest cost, and unlicensed care costs less," he said. But he cautioned parents to watch out for homes with too many children.
"There is no stimulation," he said. "They get very little attention. Even one (operator) to six children is very high."
There is some help for low-income families that need day care, but not enough. Child Development Resources subsidizes day-care costs for 450 children in the county. But there is a long waiting list of applicants.
Some assistance is on the way. The Ventura County Child Care Planning Council convened its first meeting June 19. The 50-member council was established by the County Board of Supervisors to develop a child-care plan for the county by Aug. 28 that will assess what child care exists and how much is needed.
The plan is the first step in the county's application to the state for its share of federal child-care funds that will become available later this year. The anticipated $1.5 million will be used to subsidize child care for low-income families and to improve the quality and availability of child care.
Five day-care associations in Ventura County offer parents free referrals to licensed providers who are members of the association:
* Conejo Valley Family Care Assn., 484-9354.
* Gold Coast Child Care Assn., 984-0302.
* Oxnard Family Day-Care Assn., 487-4215.
* Simi Valley-Moorpark Day-Care Assn., 584-8474.
* Ventura Day-Care Assn., 659-2713.
Other resources for referral and licensing information:
* Child Development Resources, 487-4931.
* California Department of Social Services, licensing division for centers, 682-7647.
* Ventura County Public Social Services Agency, licensing division for homes, 654-3456.
* Ventura County child care coordinator, 654-3609.