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The Care of Our Kids Is a Concern for Us All

Like any parent who leaves a child in someone else’s care, I am anguished by stories about people like Toni Majoy-Young, whose 9-month-old son died after being cared for by an unlicensed baby-sitter in Reseda in 1990.

That tragedy is back in the news this week, as jury selection in the baby-sitter’s second trial starts today. (The first jury deadlocked two years ago.)

Too often, the issue of child care snatches headlines only when it comes up in the context of woe. Most of the time, stories about child care are a snooze, total yawners to people who don’t have to find a safe, affordable haven for their preschoolers every Monday through Friday.

You can’t force people to get worked up about something in which they have no vested interest.

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And yet, child care is an issue we’d all do well to get worked up about. How kids are cared for in the first years of life--the connections they make to people, what they learn, the messages about themselves they absorb--is critical to later success in school and, of course, in life.

Dependable child care is more than a children’s issue. It’s a family issue, a mother issue, a father issue. It is also a work issue. Try, for instance, concentrating on your job if you don’t think your child is safe. Enlightened companies see the correlation between child care and worker productivity--and act on it.

Some companies can only afford to offer pretax savings accounts for child-care expenses, or a place for nursing mothers to express milk. Others have invested millions of dollars in on-site child-care centers.

Employers who don’t give any support at all to working parents should be sent to bed without their suppers.

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It is a popular (and, sadly, correct) notion that we are a country fond of giving lip service to our love for children.

Take a walk through your local public high school and tell me if it doesn’t look just like you imagine public schools in the Bronx might look; witness the move to cut welfare benefits for women with children; check out the ever-shrinking hours of your local public library.

We like kids all right--as long as we don’t have to prove it with taxes.

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Unlike most other industrialized nations--which have mandated parental leaves and subsidized, quality child care--we leave workers and employers up to their own devices.

One of the arguments often used against government-supported child care is the primacy of the family. How dare the government, in other words, butt into family business?

This argument is as loony--and anti-child--as the one used by Vista Unified School District trustees last year when they rejected a $400,000 state grant for low-income minority children. Part of the money was to have been spent on providing breakfast to hungry youngsters, a violation, apparently, of the sanctity of the family unit.

American families have shown over and over again that they need help, not illusions of privacy.

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Last month, the Families and Work Institute in New York released the results of a five-year study showing that children in the care of relatives receive substandard care far more often than children in the care of non-relatives.

So much for the sanctity of blood ties.

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Relatively speaking, Los Angeles is a child care-friendly place. It is easy to obtain a license to provide home-based child care, for instance, and both city and county have full-time child-care coordinators.

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In an effort to determine just how “family friendly” local companies are, the county child-care coordinator, Kathleen Malaske-Samu, undertook a survey of 300 L.A. employers. She wondered how the depressed economy had affected child-care benefits.

To her surprise, the survey revealed a steady growth across the entire range of benefits--from allowing employees to set aside pretax dollars for child care to on-site child-care centers.

The county itself is the largest sponsor of on-site child care, with six centers scattered around Los Angeles. The entertainment industry--portrayed by Republican forces as so hostile to “family values” in the last presidential election--provides 15% of the workplace child-care centers in the county.

Later this month, the county Board of Supervisors and the Child Care Advisory Board will honor companies whose employees think have given more than lip service to supporting children and their working parents. Anyone who wants to pat the boss’s back can contact Malaske-Samu this week at (213) 974-2440.

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“We are looking for anything that has made a difference for families--lactation rooms, beepers, flex time,” she said. “You don’t always have to build a $4-million child-care center to make a difference.”

It’s not as big a story as the death of a child and a murder trial.

But which would you rather read about?

* Robin Abcarian’s column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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