Day-care centers: `For every child, they ought to be great'

Who Cares for the Children? PBS, tomorrow, April 13, 8-10 p.m. Narrated by Rhea Perlman. Produced by Dave Davis. The house needs paint.

The basement is a fire hazard.

The living room is dirty, cluttered with toys and infant walkers.

In the bare, mud-filled backyard, a makeshift arrangement of rubber tires serves as playground equipment.

The scene is part of a forthcoming Public Broadcasting System documentary entitled ``Who Cares for the Children?''

Fortunately, not every day-care center is like this. In truth, the system is a hodgepodge, a patchwork.

Day-care providers range from large, for-profit chains to ``neighborhood-mom'' operations to nannies and family relatives who care for children in their homes.

While most aren't scandalous, many are less than desirable. They're accepted by parents as temporary solutions, a stopgap measure until preschool.

The years from birth to age 5, however, may be the most critical developmental years in an individual's life, experts say. Young children need more than stopgap solutions. As one parent in ``Who Cares for the Children?'' laments when faced with a choice of centers, ``They're not horrible, but they're not great; and for every child, they ought to be great.''

``Who Cares for the Children?'' outlines today's day-care problems and showcases some of the most innovative and successful solutions around the country.

Narrated by Rhea Perlman, the down-to-earth, outspoken barmaid, Carla, on the network show ``Cheers,'' the documentary begins with a nostalgic look back at the American family as portrayed in TV sitcoms.

It quickly switches tracks to modern-day parents, dropping off children at day care - an often tense, teary ritual that dramatizes the changes in America's families.

The traditional ``Ozzie and Harriet'' family - the father who goes off to work and the stay-at-home mom - describes only about 10 percent of families now. More than 20 million mothers work, either out of choice or necessity.

Almost 65 percent of mothers with school-age children work outside the home, a figure likely to jump to 80 percent in two years.

These changes in the work force have produced skyrocketing demand for day care - and a squeeze on supply.

In some cities, availability of day care is so limited that parents race to sign up infants before their birth. If they succeed, they may face an annual bill of $3,000 to $5,000 per child - an outlay that can do some damage to the budgets of even prosperous families.

The money, sad to say, isn't enough to buy a professional, well-paid work force. Organized centers, strapped by modest revenues, pay workers as little as $3.50 an hour - a wage that discourages qualified teachers and has produced an annual staff turnover rate of 42 percent.

Nor are there strict regulations and provisions governing centers. For example, 16 states don't even require day-care workers to wash their hands after they change a diaper and before they prepare food.

Such sobering statistics paint day care as a major social problem - inextricably tangled in economic realities and ideological snags.

However, one of the surprises in ``Who Cares for the Children?'' is its optimism, which appears when KCTS/Seattle producer Dave Davis turns the camera on six innovative programs in various states and communities.

In San Francisco, several mothers, frustrated with lack of information about day-care centers, founded Bananas, now one of the nation's oldest and most sophisticated resource and referral agencies.

Chicken Soup, a corporate-funded medical clinic for mildly ill children in Minneapolis, has become a national model for such centers.

Campbell's Inc. has paved the way for corporate, on-site day-care centers right within its facility in Camden, N.J.

In Dallas, the abduction of a child from a day-care center led to adoption of a major city accreditation program for centers.

In Montgomery, Ala., a grass-roots effort succeeded in pressuring the Legislature there to restore previously slashed child-care funding.

In Massachusetts, a model welfare reform program features child-care subsidies to accompany job training.

``This is a mainstream issue,'' says Mr. Davis. ``Several major bills are before Congress. Employers are getting involved. Some business analysts are saying child care will be the major fringe benefit of the '90s.''

This hopeful mood has helped launch an ambitious package of coming events organized around the airing of ``Who Cares for the Children?''

In conjunction with the documentary, public television and radio are exploring the child-care theme this week. Popular series such as ``Sesame Street'' and ``Mister Rogers Neighborhood'' have written the child-care theme into new episodes. ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'' ``Modern Maturity,'' ``The Nightly Business Report,'' and other news shows are discussing the crisis.

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