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Child Day Care: Growing Pains

December 05, 1987|JAN HOFMANN | For The Times

Before they even have a chance to write thank-you notes for all those lovely toasters and tablecloths, a few Orange County newlyweds take care of a more pressing matter: They sign up on the waiting list for an infant day-care program, just in case they need it by the time their name gets to the top. Others wait until they conceive.

Such farsightedness might seem a little odd, but it works. And in Orange County, where there are roughly three children in need of care for every space in a licensed facility, what works is what counts.

For the last couple of weeks, Family Life has explored child-care woes with Orange County parents. For many families in a county where working mothers outnumber those who stay at home and two incomes are often an economic necessity, there are only Band-Aid solutions and plenty of anxiety.

Typical of many working mothers is Sandy, a postal worker who lives in Westminster and says she wishes she could stay home with her three children, ages 10, 8 and 4.

"My mom stayed home when I was growing up," Sandy said. "She was there every day when I came home. To me, that's the way it's supposed to be. But when we had to face buying a home, the only way we could afford it was to have two incomes. So I went back to work. But it goes against my heart. The guilt is tremendous."

A few weeks ago when her oldest son was sick, Sandy had to leave him home alone. "That just killed me," she said. "He did fine, except that so many people called to check up on him that he didn't get much rest."

In many parts of the county, there are efforts to help parents like Sandy. Family Life looked at some of the more innovative programs.

Irvine officials were thinking ahead in 1982 when the city set up its child-care office, the only one of its kind in the county and one of a handful nationwide.

Staff member Sandy Litzie said child-care solutions come in two forms: individual and community. And neither, she said, can exist without the other.

"Your (child-care) problem for this week may go away, but then next week there's a problem again. You have to deal with the bigger issue so it won't keep coming back."

So in addition to referring parents to child-care providers, the Irvine staff also works on the community level, encouraging companies to set up child-care programs for their employees, coordinating a job bank for child-care workers, even lobbying for legislation favorable to child care.

Lately, the four people on staff have also been answering inquiries from other cities in the county and elsewhere that are considering setting up similar programs. "A lot of places seem to be getting started now," Litzie said.

Although the child-care staff tries to come up with a solution for each of about 400 parents who call each month, sometimes that can't be done.

"I remember one case in particular, a single father with four children. His oldest was in fifth grade, but she had to stay home from school to take care of the youngest, a preschooler, because he couldn't afford child care," Litzie said. "We didn't have anything to offer, so we referred him to the Children's Home Society."

The Irvine office's phone might as well belong to the lonely Maytag repairman in comparison with the Children's Home Society's Kid-Care hot line. Lately, it has been ringing about 2,000 times a month, and the staff there has put out a call for volunteers to help handle the load, program supervisor Kristen Keith said.

Kid-Care provides referrals to licensed child-care in centers and family homes throughout Orange County, Keith said. She emphasized that those are referrals, not recommendations, and acknowledged that sometimes, especially with subsidized care for low-income families, the referral may lead only to a waiting list.

"We try to give people as many choices as possible," she said, "and we also give them a brochure on choosing child care so that they know what to look for."

Next time one of her sons gets sick, Sandy, the Westminster mother, may have another option. In January, a Rainbow Retreat center is scheduled to open in nearby Huntington Beach, the first expansion of a center for mildly ill children that began two years ago in Newport Beach.

An Anaheim Hills branch is scheduled to open in February, and other locations are planned, according to Sherry Senter, executive director of Rainbow's parent company, National Pediatric Support Services.

Rainbow Retreat accepts only mildly ill children from 2 months to 12 years old, Senter said. Again, planning ahead is important: parents must pre-register before the need arises. Then when the child becomes ill, they must call and reserve a space on a first-come, first-served basis. Before the reservation is accepted, Senter said, "we go over a check list of about 20 things to determine whether the child qualifies. If they have an undiagnosed rash, or a fever out of control, for example, we can't take them."

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