After the birth of each of her children, Deborah Warren reluctantly went back to work as a medical receptionist with concerns about the kind of child care her youngsters were receiving.
As her children got older, she felt they needed her even more than when they were babies, she said, and she eventually quit her job to stay home with them.
It was then that she followed through on an idea she had toyed with for several years: starting a child care service in her Long Beach home to provide others with the kind of care she had sought for her own youngsters.
"I love working at home much more than working in an office," said Warren, whose children are now teen-agers. "I'm my own boss. I set my own pace. And, I'm home with my own children."
She is quick to point out, however, that home-based child care has all the disadvantages of any small business, including 12-hour days and no paid vacations. There is also the isolation, particularly for women who work alone, as well as the relatively low pay and low status of someone who is often viewed as just a baby sitter.
Warren is one of 30 women in Long Beach--there are 30 more in Compton--who are participating in a pioneer program designed to address some of these disadvantages and help standardize and upgrade home-based child care nationwide.
The Child Development Associate credentialing program is a part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and was created in 1971 to set professional standards for personnel in the Head Start program. Last year, it was expanded to include people who provide child care in their homes.
The program is so new that only 25 of the home-based credentials have been given so far, according to Peggy Harrel, assistant to the program director in Washington, D.C. Approximately 350 candidates nationwide are "in the pipeline" now, she said.
To earn a CDA credential, a candidate must submit to an evaluation by a committee composed of a national representative, a parent whose child is in the candidate's care and a local child care professional, such as a college professor or a child care center director.
The evaluation covers 13 areas, ranging from the health and safety of the home, to the educational, social and creative programs provided, to the professionalism and management ability of the care giver.
Classes preparing CDA candidates for their evaluations are being taught at Long Beach City College, where Warren is enrolled, and Compton Community College. The Long Beach classes are not designed for beginners, according to Dr. Phyllis Lauritzen, who is the coordinator of the LBCC project.
"They have to have at least 10 months experience and know that they want to make it their career. They have to know enough to ask questions," she said.
The classes in Long Beach and Compton meet for several hours once a week. They include lectures by specialists in various fields, including psychologists discussing learning disabilities and educators talking about preparing children for kindergarten admission tests. The classes also help the women create teaching aids, such as devices to help children learn shapes, colors and sizes.
It is not necessary to take classes to earn the CDA credential, but the classes, in addition to helping candidates prepare for the evaluations, offer the women contact with each other, which helps address the isolation that some say is the hardest part of their occupation.
"It's nice to learn how other women deal with the same problems," said Sandra Leonard, a Long Beach student.
It has been estimated that 40% of all child care takes place in homes, both licensed and unlicensed, Lauritzen said.
Yet, said Ida Frisby, dean of human services at Compton Community College, the low status ascribed to home-based child care is often deserved. "People may have absolutely no background in child care," she said. "Children need more than custodial care. It is critical that child care be upgraded."
The scarcity of quality child care is a growing concern locally as well as nationally. Lauritzen, a member of a Long Beach task force studying ways to improve availability, said that Long Beach alone is estimated to need 3,800 more child-care spaces than it now has.
"Child care is a huge market," Harrel said, "and it's one of our greatest shames. It's one of the most important jobs around, and one of the lowest paid," she said.
"One of the benefits of the CDA credential program is that it helps the worker herself realize her own worth," Harrel said. She said that one woman who earned a certificate told her, "I always knew that I was doing a good job, but now I know it."
"I feel I'm already a professional," Warren said, "but (earning this) credential lets people know you know what you're doing and that you care. You're not just sitting home watching the children play."