In a well-kept, if modest, house in North Oakland, Calif., Vera Silverman, a robust black woman with eight children of her own, set up family day care in 1979. Her husband is a law student, and two of her older youngsters help her mind eight clients, age five to nine, after school until 6 p.m.
Mrs. Silverman's regular fee is $135 a month. But she admits that she reduces it for those families feeling a financial crunch.
The atmosphere is informal. The children have the run of most of the house. Toys and games are strewn around the living room and play area. Mrs. Silverman serves the youngsters an afternoon snack. Sometimes she takes them on field trips to museums, the library, puppet shows -- even fishing.
"I saw the need for after-school care. I didn't have it for my own children, " she says. "Kids shouldn't have to go home to an empty house or a babysitter after school."
How do the youngsters like the setup? Frequent hugs give a positive clue. "They all call me 'Vera,'" Mrs. Silverman says proudly. "I am their child carer , teacher, friend, and part-time momma."
"Givers" like Vera Silverman -- neighbors, community residents, mothers, grandmothers, single and married, young and old -- constitute the largest single group of child-care providers in the US. A new study on family care -- conducted by Abt Associates Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., for the Administration for Child, Youth, and Families -- confirms that nearly half of the youngsters in day care in the US are in family homes.
Part of the popularity stems from availability. School-based child care may be a more prestigious choice. Parents tend to trust the school setting. They're familiar with the surroundings and personnel. And although before-and-after school staff may differ from the regular teaching staff, an air of credibility and respectability surrounds the public school.
But after-school "slots" are often limited by insufficient classroom space. Many administrators report long waiting lists for "subsidized" care and not enough room for those who can afford to pay. Some programs, such as those in New York's Chinatown, will cut off youngsters when parents' income rises above federal poverty standards or even when a parent is laid off from work. "It's crazy," concedes one extended-day administrator. "This is often when they most need child care -- when they are under the pressure of looking for a job. But the rules say we can't keep the kid if a parent is at home."
By comparison with most school day-care centers, family day-care centers seem informal, less regimented. The school may be the institutions for day care that parents feel most natural with. But the family day-care center, when it is small and personal like Vera Silverman's, can seem like no institution at all. It offers a concerned parent the promise of a measure of affection for the child -- a "part-time momma."
But family day is the most controversial as well as the most popular form of day care. In many states, among them California and Texas, debate swirls around licensing and standards. Involved are costs, health and safety factors, and problems of monitoring the quality of care.
Referral and information services, such as Oakland's BANANAS and San Francisco's SWitchboard, as well as other day-care list compilers in major cities across the US, admit that even in states where licensing or registration is required, compliance is low.
"Estimates have been made that 90 percent of all family day care is unlicensed," says June Sale, who chairs the Governor's Advisory Committee on Child Development Program in California. Mrs. Sale prefers registration of prospective family providers to licensing, but she strongly opposes California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s proposal to abandon licensing before an adequate registration plan is set in place.
Governor Brown recently jolted the day-care community in his state -- even those who have long been advocates of eased regulations -- by lopping $8 million off state administrative costs by eliminating family day-care licensing.
Professionals are also troubled about the comparatively low wages of family day-care providers. The Abt study shows that women who open their homes to young children often earn an average of less than $1 an hour for their services. This is particularly true in minority communities where many homes are actually operating outside the law -- unregistered and unlicensed.
The Abt study concedes that family day care will continue to grow across the US, regardless of regulation or quality. But it strongly urges states and the federal government to pull up their socks and promote the development of day-care systems so they may share public benefits, such as the Agriculture Department's Child Care Food Program. Federal and state officials should also support community-based information services (such as BANANAS); enforce licensing procedures; and encourage formal training for family givers.
Will these things happen? Probably not soon, admit lobbyists in the field. They cite the present wave of federal and state cutbacks that tend to work against costly child-care reforms, as well as new pressures from conservatives and fundamentalist church groups to stem government regulation of family-related services.
While child care is a serious problem for most parents, it is particularly acute for single parents, burdened with social and financial deprivation, who now constitute almost a fourth of all family units in the US --these extraordinary situations something more than simple school or family day care is required.
Take Pat (not her real name). She is uneducated, without obvious talents, unprepared to hold a job, and without the means to take care of her brood of three --who range from infancy to seven years of age.
Pat's husband has abandoned her. She has no other family to support her. She is alone, bewildered, at wits' end -- at least she was until now.
Warren Village, a unique residence of shelter for single men and women with young children, rescued Pat.
Located in the Capitol Hill section of Denver, Warren Village is similar to other urban shelters for homeless, abandoned, abused, or unwed mothers but for one factor: it has built-in child care right in its residence-hall type facility.
Warren Village offers Pat a package of solutions for her various human needs. Through a counseling program, it is helping her gain new self-respect, preparing her to earn her own living, and bolstering her parenting skills through cooking and child guidance classes. During the day, Pat's preschool youngsters are cared for at the in-house learning center. Her school-age son attends a local elementary school. When the dimissal bell rings, he returns to the shelter community and its after-hours program.
Pat is now taking a course in computer programming, which she hopes will lead to a career. She's learning about nutrition and how to shop wisely and plan a household budget. "She may not be out of the woods yet," says one staffer. "But she's feeling a lot better about herself. And that's a start."
"We're attempting to provide an environment and a set of resources to allow a parent to achieve her own maximum potential," explains Charles Mowry, Warren Village executive director.
"And we want to see that parent provide for herself and her family."
Over 50 percent of Warren Village residents earn under $3,500 a year -- 31 percent under $2,500. Most are white; 45 percent are black, hispanic, or from other minority backgrounds.
Warren Village's $800,000 annual budget is underwritten by private foundation monies and by contributions from business, churches, and fund-raising events.
Rents -- which range from $192 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $266 for three bedrooms for larger families -- are largely underwritten by social services subsidies.
The average stay is 15 months. Warren Village is reluctant to put its residents back out on the street, but its staff makes strong efforts to motivate them to help themselves.
Successes? Each resident sets her or his (there are a few single fathers) own goals. But most aim toward returning to school or job.
The Good News column of the Warren Village residents' newsletter chronicles forward steps. Among them: "Sue has started electronics school; Ingeborg is in art school; Bobby graduate from truck driver school and is working at Pepper Packing; Debra now works at Better Jobs for Women; Naomi got a job at the Brown Palace Hotel; Debbie is in college and has started a support group for teen mothers."
Charles Mowry stresses the child-care element. "If children have problems -- and there's no reliable child care -- the parents' work record will be spasmodic ," he says. "Make no mistake about it. Managing a family interacts with making a living."
Warren Village may be the only program of its kind in the US -- a women's shelter with built-in child care. But there are other "special needs" child-care projects across the nation. They include:
* After-school classes for physically and emotionally handicapped children in more than a score of states, including Texas, California, and New York. Emphasis is on learning skills as well as play. Special transportation is usually provided. In some cases, youths may attend through their late teens. (Most after-school programs cut off at ages 12 to 14.) These programs are heavily endowed with federal funds. And they are not likely to be cut, even under Reagan administration fiscal belt-tightening.
* Short-term child care, Jim Strickland's controversial shopping center-based Check-A-Child service started in Austin, Texas. Versions of it are being copied in Cleveland, Portland, Ore., San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Check-A-Child offers short-term child care -- usually 2 1/2 to four hours -- for parents who are shopping downtown, working part-time, or keeping business appointments. Rates start at $1.75 with discounts for more than one child from a family. The Stricklands (wife Barbara manages the Austin operation) have worked out discount arrangements with local chain stores and movies. For example, shoppers in the local J. C. Penney store get a 40 percent reduced fee. And employees who work under the company's extensive flexible time plan may avail themselves of a similar discount.
Some child-care professionals are wary, even extremely critical, of operations like Check-A-Child and franchised child-care operations like those run by Children's World and KinderCare.They charge "for profit" child care is much too likely to emphasize moneymaking over quality care, placing children under rigidly structured programs and underemphasizing staff competence.
Jim Strickland disagrees. He insists his programs are well-planned and comparable to school-based and other quality center-care operations. In three years over 5,000 youngsters have registered at Check-A-Child --
* Realizing that the number of latchkey children is not likely to decrease despite the proliferation of care programs, many schools are offering "survival" courses for children who need to fend for themselves after school. Safety and domestic skills are stressed. For example, grade schools in Cranston, R.I., are teaching eight- and nine-years-olds to mend and wash their own clothes and prepare meals. "It's a very valuable program," one working mother told a reporter. "It's taught my kids to be self-sufficient and helped lighten my load around the house."
Many advocacy groups for child care offer free advice. Among them, the New York-based Single Parent Family Project. Director Suzanne Jones urges working parents to designate a neighbor or relative as a surrogate parent who can be counted on in an emergency when the real parent can't be reached.
SPFP gives these tips to those whose children are home alone in the afternoon: Post a list of emergency phone numbers, including both parents' work numbers; frequently call an unsupervised child to check on his well-being; put limits on use of stoves and cooking utilities; make sure youngsters know where hidden house keys are; and prepare a child for the possibility that you might be late some nights and won't be able to call because of traffic or train delays.
There are very few studies to corroborate with hard data the pitfalls of being a latchkey (or unsupervised) child. One now in progress in the New England area is being conducted by Joan Bergstrom, professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College. Professor Bergstrom is interviewing working parents and their offspring to determine how these youngsters cope when they have no formal after-school care.She says it would be valuable for parents to be able to share ideals. For example, some families provide latchkey children with "survival" kits, which include extra keys, emergency money for telephone calls and bus and taxi fare, and even snacks. ("I eat my candy if I get really stressed out," one nine-year-old told the researcher.)
Unlike many other experts, Professor Bergstrom is not completely sold on formal programs. She's concerned that some youngster get worn out by planned sports and crafts activities after a full school day. "There are times when it's just all right to sit in front of a television set and unwind," she says.
Meanwhile, other child-care workers cite a bevy of media reports that show children on their own vulnerable to kidnapping and abuse by strangers; victims of accidents, house fires, and poisonings; and open to gang pressure and delinquent behavior.
Among these is James Garbarino, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University. He writes in a recent "Vital Issues" publication: "The risks associated with latchkey children are of four types: that they will feel badly (e.g., rejected and alienated); that they will act badly (e.g., delinquency and vandalism); that they will develop badly (e.g., academic failure); and that they will be treated badly (e.g., accidents and sexual victimization)."
Professor Garbarino insists that "all four [risks] are quite real."
So what is the answer?
BANANAS (as in "this kid is driving me . . .") was one of the first child-care information and referral services in the US. It is based in the multiethnic community of Oakland, Calif., and serves families of all incomes, but with emphasis on the poor.
Its philosophy is that parents should have a wide variety of choices -- traditional child care (such as school-based programs) as well as alternative care (including play groups, babysitting co-ops, exchanges). "The best child care is ultimately the arrangement that is best for an individual parent and his or her children," insists Ms. Cohen.
The answers vary with the child, the family, the community. Most care provides agree that the decision must be made by the parent or parents. "Parents really know what is good for their child," insists Betty Cohen of BANANAS.
Next: Child care: in the boss's best interests?