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A Child-Care Backup That’s Always There

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ann Saneto ticks off the values that guide her workday--commitment, perseverance, patience, tolerance and optimism.

Sound like a five-step program? It is, although the steps are literally baby steps. Saneto is the director of ChildrenFirst Inc.'s backup child-care center in downtown Los Angeles, where toddlers get to enjoy corporate perks just like their professional parents.

“It’s up to the child whether they participate,” says Saneto, as a nearby table full of youngsters willingly participates in eating lunch. “We try to give kids control because this is a new environment.”

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Amid the dense forest of office buildings, ChildrenFirst operates a hidden oasis for children lucky enough to have parents with enlightened employers when it comes to child-care emergencies. The backup day-care center--a colorful, corporate-subsidized cavern of toys, fish tanks and caregivers--is a fast-growing segment of the child-care industry, according to child-care providers.

Backup centers care for kids when regular arrangements break down--the baby-sitter is ill, school is closed, the grandparent has jury duty or the nanny is on vacation. The centers began springing up about a decade ago after a couple of Washington, D.C., law firms hatched a plan for getting their bedeviled attorneys to court--paralegals cared for children in conference rooms.

The backup centers are far more sophisticated--and costly--than those early makeshift tot lots, but corporations are finding it pays to invest in quality child care near the office, where employees can drop off their kids and their child-care worries.

“It’s really a win-win situation from the perspective of almost everybody,” says Lilli Friedland, a West L.A. clinical psychologist specializing in family issues. “They ensure the child is in good hands. Parents see the child at lunch and breaks, so there’s a sense of connectedness even though it’s an unfamiliar environment. And they’re usually great facilities, so kids really like it.”

In Southern California, the number of client companies buying slots for kids has tripled since ChildrenFirst--the largest developer of backup facilities--opened its center here four years ago. And it is opening two new facilities in the next six months.

ChildrenFirst is building a $750,000 center in the Irvine Business Complex that will accommodate families of 15 nearby businesses. Taco Bell Corp. and its parent company, Tricon Global Restaurants, will be the biggest client of the 5,300-square-foot facility, which will be Orange County’s first backup center.

“When ChildrenFirst came in, we were intrigued,” says Connie Colao, Taco Bell’s chief people officer. “Seventy-five percent of day care is people coming to the home, versus children going to facilities like KinderCare. What parents really need is something when that primary care person is sick or on vacation or they have a family emergency.”

ChildrenFirst, which cares for children from 12 weeks old through age 12, is also planning to open a Burbank center next spring that would serve several movie studios. And the company is exploring the possibility of a Santa Monica center.

Space for Kids on an Emergency Basis

A Boston-based company, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, operates primary child-care facilities in Southern California rather than centers solely dedicated to backup care. But half of its 14 area facilities accept client companies’ kids on an emergency basis if there’s room, according to Leslie Spanier, Bright Horizons’ division vice president of operations. On average, a few extra children can be accommodated at each facility, but a few more are turned away for space. And the company is negotiating to open new Southland centers that would guarantee space for backup care.

“Wherever we have new clients, it’s definitely something they’re interested in,” Spanier says. “It’s a way of offering a much-needed service to a broad base of their employees.”

(ChildrenFirst doesn’t take children who are sick, but some Bright Horizons centers care for mildly ill kids, as does the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation’s Children’s Center in West L.A., which is staffed by a nurse.)

Indeed, a growing number of companies believe it pays to pay for day care when regular arrangements fall through and that employees without child-care worries can be more productive. Chase Manhattan calculated that it saved $1.5 million in employee absentee costs the first year that Bright Horizons’ Brooklyn, N.Y., backup center was in operation, according to Nancy Rosenzweig, Bright Horizons vice president for marketing. The center cost Chase $720,000 that year.

“Corporations don’t do things to be nice,” says Rosemary Jordano, who founded ChildrenFirst in Boston seven years ago. “They do it to maximize shareholder value. Their interests would be served by aligning with the interests of families.”

Iris Falk, marketing manager for Morrison & Foerster, says including backup care on its menu of perks helped the L.A. law firm make Working Mother magazine’s list of the nation’s 100 best companies for working mothers.

“For recruiting and retention, it’s critical,” Falk says. “People won’t be happy just twice a month when the paycheck comes in. They need to be satisfied every single day, and that’s what we try to offer. Attorneys and staff are very concerned with being comfortable at work knowing that family needs are being taken care of.”

Easing the Transition to a New Environment

Of course, a new environment can be stressful for young children and their parents.

“If a child doesn’t know anybody, it can be a difficult day, depending on how old they are,” says Mitzi Onizuka, a program specialist with the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “That’s especially true for young children up to 2 years old, because they really thrive on routine and predictability.”

But providers say they go out of their way to make new kids feel at home. Families are asked to tour the facility and meet the teachers before they need to use it, and teachers pay special attention to troubled children.

Friedland says such problems may be unavoidable.

“If there’s a trusted family member to leave your child with, of course, that would be the best,” she says. “But very few people have that option.”

Backup centers are a relatively recent trend as the number of working mothers keeps increasing, care providers say. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 62% of married mothers with children younger than 6 were in the work force--twice the percentage in 1970.

Also spurring demand is the mobility of today’s families, which places them far from traditional support networks.

“Families are very definitely on their own,” Friedland says. “Knowing that their children are with people they can trust is the best present anyone can have.”

Jannette Lyon, attorney recruiting administrator for Morrison & Foerster, says she drops her 8-year-old son, Jesse, at ChildrenFirst’s downtown center when school is closed or when she needs to take him to the doctor.

“For me, it only costs $10 a day, whereas I would have had to pay a teenager to sit at home for $80 a day,” Lyon says. “And it’s a nice place to go. If I were a kid, I would want to go there. I know the center is expensive, but because it’s subsidized by corporations, you’re getting a much higher quality of personnel.”

Fees vary; some companies pay the entire tab, and others require employees to co-pay up to $25 a day. Membership costs, which vary according to the size of the company, start at less than $30,000 a year, according to ChildrenFirst Marketing Director Mark Vasu.

With corporations footing the bill, ChildrenFirst pays caregivers with college degrees salaries that start at about $26,000 a year. And the company keeps teacher-child ratios low, starting at 1 to 1 for infants and going up to 1 to 10 for school-age children.

“A lot of children may be experiencing the center for the first time, so to give them comfort and the kind of nurturing they’re accustomed to, we like to keep the ratios tight,” ChildrenFirst’s Jordano says.

With care like that, Veronica Rivera, a file clerk for Scudder, Kemper Investments, was better able to cope after her mother’s death in July. Rivera’s mother used to baby-sit for her three children, ages 2 to 5, and the downtown center helped ease the transition to a new permanent caregiver in October. Her employer covered the cost.

“It allowed me to perform my responsibilities at my job,” Rivera says. “I knew they were being well taken care of. And I didn’t want to separate my children, and they made that possible. My kids had no problem at all, even the littler ones. They were, ‘Bye, Mom,’ kissed me and that was it.”

* For more information on the centers, call Bright Horizons at (310) 640-2400 and ChildrenFirst at (800) 244-5317.

* Irene Lacher can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.


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