UNTIL recently, the well-shaded ranch-style house on Eighth Street was part-time home to as many as six busy preschoolers. That changed when the O'Briens had their second child and Rhonda O'Brien decided to take a break from her family day-care business. But any gap in the Davis child-care market was likely filled by the 100 or so other women in town who also provide care in their homes. With a population of 36,000, this largely professional, university town may have an unusually large number of family day-care providers. But small-scale businesses on the order of Mrs. O'Brien's exist throughout the country, in all kinds of communities.
While definite figures are hard to come by, experts estimate that more than half the country's day care is provided by individuals like Mrs. O'Brien, women who decide to open their homes, at a fee, to children other than their own.
Two crucial needs, say many who've studied child-care needs, are to help family day-care providers shoulder their responsibilities with the best possible professionalism and to help put parents in touch with these providers. A statewide organization in California, the Child Care Resource and Referral Network, is having a good measure of success at both these tasks. The agency grew out of efforts in the late '70s to find an alternative to state-run day care operated through the public schools, according to executive director Patty Siegel, who has been something of a day-care pioneer in the state. From 1972 to 1979 she ran the Child Care Switchboard in San Francisco, which she calls ``a kind of prototype resource and referral network.''
The current network evolved from an informal organization to a formal one in 1980, says Mrs. Siegel. It now embraces 54 local agencies, which are eligible for state money and usually serve a countywide area.
Local branch agencies, such as the one in Davis, maintain constantly updated lists of day-care providers, from larger centers to small, at-home operations like Mrs. O'Brien's. ``If you need child care, you call our office and we have a list of all licensed providers in this town, as well as nursery schools and play groups,'' explains Joan Haller, child care program specialist for the Davis office.
That's the ``referral'' part of the operation. The ``resource'' aspect comes into play as ideas and know-how are shared throughout the network. Mrs. Siegel points out that her organization has access to ``all kinds of parents and all kinds of providers -- folks who can fan out ideas and resources.''
At the grass-roots level, this means that Mrs. O'Brien and other ``day-care mothers'' are regularly in touch with the child-care services office for everything from the latest word on state laws governing the licensing of day-care facilities to practical tips on how to keep a gang of three- and four-year-olds happy.
The Davis office, one of the few network branches that serves a city instead of a county, puts out a monthly newsletter packed with items of use to day-care providers. A recent issue included a calendar of events, articles on ``latch-key children'' and toy safety, book reviews, and plans for holiday projects, for starters.
Of particular value, says Mrs. O'Brien, have been luncheons sponsored by Davis Child Care Services. All day-care mothers in the community are invited; speakers, often experts in the field, address child-care issues. These gatherings ``had a lot to do with helping me appreciate my role,'' says Mrs. O'Brien.
And that, chimes in Mrs. Haller, is a crucial accomplishment. ``Nationwide, a majority of children are cared for in a home. These women need support; they need to see themselves as professionals.''