Child-care network offers options to parents

If parents are given sound alternatives and encouraged to ask the right questions, they'll make sound decisions about day care for their children. That's an article of faith with Patty Siegel, a Californian who is head of the Resource and Referral Network, an organization designed to supply parents with information about child-care options.

``Parents would love to have us make their decisions for them,'' she says. But ``our job is to put it back to them'' by asking mothers and fathers, ``What's most important to you?''

For example, Mrs. Siegel explains, when parents consider a day-care facility, are neatly arranged toys a higher priority than the way toilet training or nap time is handled? The latter items, she implies, reach more deeply into the philosophy of the care provider and are the more important issues for parents and children.

The network's aim is to help parents ``get confidence,'' especially at a time, Siegel says, when the term ``parenting'' is frequently bandied about as something that requires ``five books and 20 courses'' to master.

These observations and a flood of others pour out during an hour-long conversation in Siegel's airy but rather inconspicuous office, situated across the street from Golden Gate Park's lush botanical garden. For her, it's a rare time to break from a busy agenda and take a few minutes to review what has been accomplished over the past dozen years or so.

An energetic woman whose round face quickly registers her feelings, she recollects those frantic days in the early '70s when, as a young mother of three children (including twins), she was busily rounding up support for a program to help working parents find good child care.

From those humble beginnings, nurtured along at various intervals by crucial grants from the Ford Foundation and others, Mrs. Siegel's organization has matured into the Resource and Referral Network, with 65 member agencies spanning the length and breadth of California. The network gathers information about child care and disburses it to parents and day-care providers in every county in the state. Among the first agencies of its type in the United States, it has frequently served as a model for pr ograms in other states.

``Just before you arrived,'' says Siegel enthusiastically, ``I was on the phone to Anchorage, Alaska. They want to form something similar up there.'' Such calls occur daily, she says.

A few years ago, things were quite different. She remembers the hours spent showing other parents how to organize their own play groups for preschool children, after hers had generated a long waiting list. That was in 1971 and '72.

About the same time, a coalition of philanthropic agencies launched a study to assess the needs of young families in this city. They found -- as Siegel could have predicted -- that the scarcity of child care was a top concern. From that study sprang a small grant -- $3,000 -- to set up a resource center for single-parent families.

Siegel, already known locally as someone intensely interested in child care, was tapped for the half-time, $150-a-month job of getting the project organized. For a few months she referred parents to the providers she already knew about; then the San Francisco Chronicle got wind of the fledgling agency and published a story about it.

``Overnight,'' says Siegel with a little chuckle, ``we went from eight calls a day to 25 calls.'' The message was clear: ``We really had to expand.''

That's when ``we became comprehensive,'' she says, searching out every type of child care in the city. Before long, the Child-care Switchboard, a day-care clearinghouse for San Franciscans, was in full swing. Eventually, the present far-reaching network, often referred to simply as the ``R and R,'' evolved.

Under the first ``R'' (resource) come efforts to monitor child-care needs and build both the quantity and quality of care. For example, the network disburses ideas and tips on new activities for children in day care. It also helps people start up day-care operations, informing them of licensing requirements and other legal responsibilities.

The second ``R'' (referral) embraces the task of listing as many licensed day-care providers in the state as possible, so that parents in any area have a ready reference. The network's listings include thousands of home-based providers, women who may take care of just a handful of children. Before the ``R and R'' gathered the information, parents typically had no ready way of finding out just who offered child care locally.

Putting the network together, and holding it together, has frequently meant scratching for funds, public and private. Through what Siegel terms a ``historical accident'' -- a rather involved series of collaborations with state government -- the network's local branches are publicly funded, while the main office in San Francisco is still run as a private agency. There are pluses and minuses to this, the director explains.

``On the one hand, we have to raise every penny, but on the other hand, we're free of state control.''

Siegel's organization sprang into action during the crises that have recently shaken the day-care industry in the US.

``Our value and our presence was very important when scares about child abuse came up,'' she says. The ``R and R'' helped parents deal with their anxieties and fielded questions from child-care providers about ``what happens if I'm falsely accused,'' Siegel relates. The network also sponsored 51 local meetings on preventing child abuse.

The organization has been actively lobbying the state on another well-publicized issue -- the shrinking number of companies willing to underwrite liability insurance for day-care providers. Siegel says the state has taken action to ensure that some form of insurance will be available. Nonetheless, she says, ``I'm scared to death that insurance costs will drive good family providers out of business.''

While keeping a wary eye on such matters of public policy, Siegel and her agency try never to lose sight of their central goal, which she describes as ``reempowering parents.''

The function of an ``R and R,'' she says, is to put all the options before parents and then say, ``Parents, trust your instincts.''

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