Chicago day care after dusk

Welfare reform is creating a growing need for odd-hours child care.

As low-income women trade government subsidies for paychecks, many find themselves on nonstandard shifts working in the service sector.

"Parents accepting employment - those at the bottom of the totem pole - very often have to take shifts that are not 9 to 5," says Randy Valenti, associate director of child care at the Illinois Department of Human Services in Springfield, Ill.

In one of the first major efforts by a state to serve the child-care needs of shift workers, Illinois plans to spend up to $1 million to enable some child-care centers to stay open nights and weekends.

"Most states haven't done very much," says Gwen Morgan, child-care consultant with WFD, Work/Family Directions in Boston. "There seems to be interest, but not a lot of programs."

Until recently, centers in Chicago had to close by 9 p.m. Now a city ordinance allows licensed centers to increase hours if they meet additional health, safety, and staffing requirements.

Two extended-hours centers are scheduled to open in Chicago this month. Initially, each site will accommodate 20 children.

"We're looking at a maximum of 40 overnight," says Ruby Smith, director of the children's services division at the Chicago Department of Human Services. "When children are sleeping, we want to ease into it before we start talking megacenters."

Ms. Smith expects attracting nighttime workers to be one of the biggest challenges. And no one knows just how many parents will use the facilities.

"In night care, they're really looking for a more homelike setting," says Mr. Valenti. "They choose relatives." Yet that arrangement has drawbacks.

"Even when you're paying relatives, it's not the most dependable care," says Smith. "Knowing that you have someplace to take the baby is better than what they have at the present."

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