WHEN their daughter, Clara, was just four months old, William Davenport and Tamara Freedman put her name on a waiting list at a highly regarded child-care center in San Francisco.
That was early in 1993. Today Clara is 2-1/2, but the couple's waiting game goes on. ''Our joke is: Even if she won't get into the center, will her children?'' Ms. Freedman says.
Her wry humor points up the continuing shortage of quality child care in the United States. A recent study of 400 centers in four states, including California, found that only 1 in 7 meets children's needs for health, safety, learning, and warm relationships. Twelve percent were actually deemed unsanitary or unsafe, according to researchers at four universities.
And in a survey released last week by Republican pollster Vince Breglio, 39 percent of respondents think it is harder to find child care today than it was five years ago. Almost as many -- 37 percent -- say child care is much more difficult to afford today.
For Freedman, the owner of a small picture-framing business, and her husband, a video editor, the quest for quality child care has demanded what Mr. Davenport calls ''a fair amount of research'' -- talking to friends, calling centers, and reading brochures.
In recent weeks the couple's search has also involved spending mornings at five different facilities. This is visiting season in many child-care centers across the country, a time when parents consider their options for September enrollment.
At 9:30 on a rainy Thursday morning, one of those visits takes the couple to the Rosenberg Preschool and Child Care Center, widely regarded as one of the city's top facilities. Sitting awkwardly on tiny chairs in a classroom decorated with children's cheerful drawings, Freedman and Davenport join two other couples who have also taken time off from their jobs to come here.
Diane Balter, the director, welcomes the group and outlines the daily schedule. She emphasizes the importance of daily communication between parents and staff (''It's a partnership,'' she says). She also explains the advantage of a full-time staff, saying, ''Children look for stability in their lives. It really helps their security.''
Such advantages come at a price: $8,450 for full-day, year-round enrollment.
Ms. Balter answers questions, then gives the group a tour of the homey two-story building. After the parents leave for work, she talks about the value of such orientations, which she has been hosting two or three times a week since January.
''Parents are shopping to see what's available,'' she says. ''Often they don't even know what they're looking for. They've read articles about child care, but they often don't know what a good program looks like.''
Some parents do know from firsthand experiences elsewhere what less-than-good programs look like. Bob Sarles, whose three-year-old daughter, Marley, attends the Rosenberg center, explains that she attended two other centers first.
One had been recommended, Mr. Sarles says, ''but we weren't real happy with it. There wasn't enough stimulation.'' At the other center, most of the care givers were Chinese. ''They took good care of her, but they couldn't speak much English. Her first couple words were in Cantonese.''
Mary Ann Trombadore, arriving at the center with her three-year-old son, Elias, used a family day care home in the city until last September.
''It worked out very well,'' she says. But in searching for facilities, she adds, ''We saw some really horrible places. Some didn't seem like a place where a child could really thrive. It was discouraging. There is quality care, but it's very expensive.''
For their part, Freedman and Davenport have been amazed by the variety of programs they have visited. ''Each place is so different,'' Freedman says. ''How does one really know what's going to make your child happiest, when the child is only 2-1/2 or 3?''
For parents confronting that question, Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., offers suggestions.
When parents visit centers, she says, they should ask about staff training and turnover rates. They need to consider the ratio of children to teachers and ask about the administrator's experience. They should also look for a variety of activities and materials.
''A lot can be gleaned from observing,'' Ms. Bredekamp says. ''Are parents hearing the sounds of happy, engaged, enthusiastic children? Or are they hearing stressful sounds or imposed quiet? At times there will be crying -- that's normal for children. It's more important to look at how the staff responds to unhappy children than to assume there will never be an unhappy child. Parents need to see a caring atmosphere.''
But even those practical steps will not increase the availability of quality care.
''I think people have a better idea about what quality is now,'' Balter says. ''But there's still a lack of respect for women and children in our society that's very profound these days. There's a lack of funding, a lack of support, a lack of vision for the future.'' Corporations, she continues, should look at the needs of their employees' children. ''Each city and neighborhood needs to look at the whole child as a potential citizen. And of course the state and the federal government have a responsibility.''
''Forget computers,'' Balter says. ''Human beings are really what it takes to raise children. The social and emotional development of children is dependent on a consistent relationship with trusted adults.''