New York scrutinizes day-care centers in wake of abuse charges

In the aftermath of charges of sexual abuse of children in day-care facilities in New York City, proposals for tougher standards for publicly funded day-care centers have been submitted at both city and state levels.

Many day-care experts, while applauding the concern and attention with which politicians have responded, say the real need is for less bureaucratic paperwork and more money to run the programs.

''New York laws are pretty comprehensive,'' says Polly Spedding of the Cornell University Extension Service. ''But there needs to be enforcement and monitoring (of existing standards for day-care facilities). Currently many states do not have the manpower.''

One suggestion, she says, is that city, state, and federal agencies put their ''money where their mouth is'' by providing centers with funding for adequate staff and setting up more complete monitoring systems.

After the arrests Aug. 2 of three workers at a day-care center in the Bronx, New York City began looking for ways to do just that. Mayor Edward Koch immediately allocated additional funding for training city staff and monitoring day-care centers. City officials are developing more stringent standards, including training programs for both day-care personnel and city workers who monitor the programs. And they are exploring ways to broaden the scrutiny the city gives day-care centers, says Cindy Freidmutter, an aide to City Council president Carol Bellamy.

The city already has strict standards for how and where money is spent and the physical condition of the facilities. But there are few standards for hiring personnel and setting policy.

''It is really lopsided,'' says Ms. Freidmutter, who notes that there are no city guidelines for how to evaluate qualifications of applicants. In addition, day-care advocates ''for years'' have asked for simplified fiscal procedures, she says.

The paperwork ''has become an enormous administrative hassle'' for directors, says Frances Alston, assistant director of the Day Care Council of New York, a consulting group. A director who would like to spend time supervising staff and curriculum is instead filling out government forms to document, for instance, how many ounces of food its day-care children consumed during the day, she says.

Day-care advocates say they are shocked by the charges of abuse that have come from New York City and elsewhere around the country. They point out that day care is essential for many families.

In New York City, there are 385 day-care centers that receive city funding, serving 42,500 children. Of $165 million spent annually on day care in New York City, the city contributes $43.2 million. One day-care expert here estimates that 85 percent of the families served are headed by single mothers. In addition to the public programs, there are an estimated 100,000 children in the city in 20,000 family day-care situations, at the homes of the care givers.

New York State actually has some of the highest standards in the country for setting up public day-care centers, say day-care center directors and outside experts. For example, the state requires a high ratio of certified instructors to students. At least two adults are supposed to be in a classroom at all times.

Day-care center directors, such as Ellen Dublin in Manhattan, say good rules and regulations are necessary, but centers are now on their own in terms of accountability, since government funding for monitoring was reduced in the 1970 s.

In addition, there has been more staff turnover at day-care centers recently. Some New York City centers are losing certified teachers to public schools.

''They leave for the higher salary, shorter hours, and summer vacation,'' Ms. Dublin says. It is sometimes hard to fill the posts, leaving less qualified teachers to fill the vacancies.

Since the disclosure of the sexual abuse cases, state, city, and private agencies have begun to look for ways to detect and prevent further abuses. Ms. Alston says Day Care Council will hold workshops this fall on how to interview prospective day-care employees and how to spot gaps in an applicant's record.

In addition to increased funds for training and monitoring, city and state legislators are looking for ways to tighten hiring practices at day-care centers that receive public funds. Assemblyman John Dearie (D) of the Bronx has proposed bills to fingerprint all prospective employees and to require psychological screening tests and background investigations.

Some day-care experts suggest the thousands of homes open for family day care ought to be registered with the state.

Others disagree, saying training should be offered to all who are in the day-care business, but that family day-care operations are too small and too informal to be licensed.

Whether a child is at a public day-care center, a private facility, or in family day care, experts exhort parents to become actively involved in choosing a center and in continuing to monitor the service.

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