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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Night Watch : Parents who work non-traditional hours are turning to such evening child care programs as one at the Torrance Y for help. Providers seek to create a feeling of family.

November 17, 1994|MARY GUTHRIE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like dinner hour in any big family. Christopher, 8, passes out the paper dinner plates, Briana, 7, and Kaylee, 3, organize the plastic silverware. Altogether, six children sit down together to eat.

It's family style, but the children aren't at home.

During their meal of fish sticks, scalloped potatoes and salad, Cathryn Steven, 27, gently reminds them to stop kicking each other under the table and to try a bite of everything.

They are at the new YWCA Home Away From Home Evening Care program, where Steven and the staff have created the first nighttime child care available in the South Bay outside private homes.

As more families depend on a single parent or need both parents to work non-traditional hours, the need for flexible child care has increased.

Parents who work at night in refineries, restaurants, hospitals, police departments or the post office are just a few examples of those who need help with their children at night. Experts agree that the best place for a child to sleep is probably in his or her own bed, but not all parents can be at home. The next-best thing seems to be care-givers who create the feeling of family--albeit a big family.

Typically, grandparents or older siblings have cared for children while parents work. Sometimes parents could also find child care in someone's home.

But often tenuous arrangements for evening child care fail, leaving parents desperate. A study by Mobil Oil Corp. found that night-shift employees at its Torrance refinery had their share of problems.

One divorced father has primary custody of his 7- and 8-year-old sons. Once, when his baby-sitter didn't show up, he brought his children to sleep in his car in the parking lot during his 12-hour graveyard shift. Another time he decided to leave the children home alone, but panicked when he called them about 7 p.m. and got no answer. He rushed home to find them fast asleep.

One mom arranged for her son's preschool teacher to drop him off at the Mobil parking lot, leaving him in her pickup truck. When she got out to the lot, the 5-year-old wasn't there. Because another mother was late picking up her child, the teacher couldn't get away for more than half an hour. The Mobil worker said it was the most horrible feeling, not knowing where her child was.

With more than 400 employees at its Torrance refinery on rotating schedules that include nights and weekends, Mobil found that the company was suffering because of child-care complications like these. A study sponsored by the company found that it could save an average of $6,000 a month if it could curb absenteeism caused by child-care problems.

Mobil approached the Torrance YWCA to create a way to help parents cope with child care. The first step, a traditional preschool, opened in September, 1993. Mobil spent about $50,000 in labor and materials to construct the portable building that houses the daytime and evening care programs.

Since it opened Sept. 14, the evening care program has registered more than 20 children. Parents can bring little ones to the Carson Street building from 3 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday. The program accepts children 2 to 14.

The staff strives to create an orderly but relaxed mood.

"It's not pizza in front of the TV," says YWCA child care director Rebecca Jessop. "It's more structured, with a home atmosphere."

Each week the group's activities follow a theme. One week the subject was fall, so one day the children made leaf collages, the next they studied the changes in the trees on the playground, and on the third day they painted with fall colors--yellow, brown and orange.

Children bring pajamas, a towel, a toothbrush and bedding. Bedtime depends on the child's age. YWCA staff say the most important thing is to keep the children stimulated but provide a comfortable environment.

For evening care the YWCA charges $4.50 to $5.50 an hour for one or two children and $2.50 an hour for each additional child. Dinner costs $3 per child.

Because nurses work around the clock, much of the experience with evening child-care centers has been at hospitals.

One company that used to offer its employees evening child care was Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. For 10 years, the nurses on night shift could bring their youngsters to a conference room at the hospital for overnight care. When the furniture was shifted out of the way, children from 3 months to 16 years would camp out between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

"The nice part about it was that your child was here," said Ellen Zaman, director of patient family services for the hospital. "But there are a lot of people who see a down side to night care, because the child has to be (awakened) very early in the morning."

Besides having to move their beds and toys out of the way each day, the children washed, had breakfast and got ready for school at the hospital.

"From a developmental standpoint, you don't have much of a family life if you are on site with your parent," Zaman said.

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