WHEN a young mother in Miami couldn't find a babysitter for her two preschoolers one Monday, she called in sick on her job as a cafeteria worker in an elementary school. Later that week, still without child care, she felt she had no choice but to leave the little boys home alone while she worked. At 8:30 a.m., the mother phoned home and spoke to one of the boys, who assured her everything was OK. But when she returned from work at 3, she discovered the bodies of her two sons, aged 3 and 4, in the clothes dryer.
The mother explained to a reporter that she had considered going on welfare and staying home with her children. But welfare didn't pay enough. So a year ago she put her sons on a list of more than 6,000 names waiting for subsidized child care in Dade County.
``I kept calling them up and they kept saying they didn't have space,'' she was quoted as saying.
``Leaving the children alone was not a decision that was easily arrived at by the mother,'' says Jack Levine, director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth, an advocacy group based in Tallahassee. ``We only pay Aid to Families with Dependent Children to the level of $2.20 per day per child. It's nearly impossible to raise a child on that amount. That's what diapers cost.
``So you have parents, usually single parents, struggling to overcome that AFDC syndrome by working. It becomes evident that for lack of affordable, safe day care, neglect seems to be the only option. If people want to press criminal charges against the mother, we would also have to put legislators on the accomplice list.''
In another Florida case that made lurid headlines, a two-year-old in St. Petersburg was savagely bitten one evening by his mother's boyfriend, who was babysitting while the boy's mother worked. The next day she noticed dark bruises and bite marks all over the toddler's body.
The boyfriend, a 35-year-old security guard, stated in an arrest affidavit that he was ``under stress'' from his work. When he had cared for the child on previous occasions, he had angered the boy's mother by spanking him. The man had promised he would no longer spank the child.
When abuse occurs at a day-care center, public outrage understandably runs high. But when neglect and abuse take place in the home because competent child care is unavailable or unaffordable, incidents often go unnoticed or unreported - until they achieve the proportions of horror stories.
The little-publicized, everyday facts are these. In Florida alone, 24,000 children languish on waiting lists for subsidized day care. The lists grow by 18 children each day, or 6,200 a year.
Sadly, those figures tell only part of the story. An equal number of children who are potentially eligible are not on waiting lists, according to Mr. Levine. ``We're talking about roughly 40,000 to 60,000 children in Florida under the age of 5 for whom there is no room at the inn,'' he explains. ``The reality is neglect.''
Until the recent tragedy in Miami, he continues, ``Many people did not ever make the association between waiting lists and actual damage to children. A waiting list is not a safe place to be. It is limbo, danger, crisis. There are no carpets on a waiting list, no toys, no trained adults to watch over and help children. A child on a waiting list is most likely to be neglected, molested, abused.''
Further evidence of that link comes from two researchers in the school of public health at the University of North Carolina. They have found that families with regular access to child care have the lowest rates of substantiated child abuse - 6 percent for those who have full-time child care, 38 percent for those who have no regular child care.
Nor is daytime care the only need. Mr. Levine cites a recent study showing that one-third of the single parents who are the sole providers of care for their family do not work during traditional hours. They are either swing shift workers or night-shift workers.
At the same time, he notes, less than 5 percent of child-care centers provide care after 6:00 p.m.
If night care existed, the two-year-old in St. Petersburg who was bitten by his mother's abusive boyfriend might have been safely cared for in a licensed facility.
``While we are a society that gives a great deal of lip service to children, we give precious little actual support,'' says Judy Goldsmith, former president of the National Organization for Women. ``Women's well-being and children's well-being are inseparable. The need for good, responsible child care is absolutely desperate. We have a completely inadequate national commitment to providing the necessary support system to women through the provision of good, responsible child care.''
What will it take to strengthen that commitment, particularly for low-income parents needing subsidized care?
In Florida, Mr. Levine says, ``We're talking about $2,100 a year per child, of which the federal government supplies three-quarters. All we're asking the state legislature for is $400 to $500 per child to prevent death and disability.''
Those subsidies may be one consequence of a changing workplace. More than half of all new jobs created between 1979 and 1984 pay less than $7,000. That is hardly a living wage or a level of income that can buy much child care.
At the same time, child-care costs continue to increase. They took nearly 30 percent of the median family's income in 1984, compared with about 11 percent 20 years ago.
Even for infants and toddlers fortunate enough to be enrolled in child-care centers, other challenges exist. David Elkind, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., reported recently that the turnover rate among day-care workers and early childhood teachers is so high that many children have new caregivers every few months.
``One of the most important things in a young child's life is having the consistent care of people who have grown to know and understand that child,'' Dr. Elkind maintains. ``This is impossible to accomplish when teachers and caregivers are changing frequently. Having to adjust constantly to new caregivers is extremely stressful for young children.''
The last word on the status of the child-care profession comes from US Census Bureau statistics, which indicate that caregivers in most licensed day-care centers earn less than golf caddies and parking lot attendants.