Things unraveled swiftly for Sandra and Fernando Labarthe, both 33, last March. The relative who had been caring for their three children in their Granada Hills home returned to Peru.
The departure sent the Labarthes scrambling for a patchwork solution, which now has Fernando, 7, staying with a neighbor after school and Eduardo, 3, in a Santa Monica preschool where he receives a partial scholarship. Victor, 19 months, spends mornings with his father, a construction worker who bids jobs with the toddler astride his hip. The father then takes Victor to the home of a friend in Van Nuys during the afternoons. Sandra leaves the house by 6:45 each morning so she can drop off Fernando and Eduardo and get to work on time. At the end of the day, she picks up all three children in different places, which takes about an hour.
"The other day I was crying. I was so stressed out," says Sandra, an office manager at the Fred Weisman Center, a nonprofit service for pregnant women associated with the nearby Venice Family Clinic. "I got a call about Victor being sick." Sandra couldn't leave work. "Fernando picked him up. It is really a headache. I just don't know how long I can have my children in three different places."
Sandra has been searching for infant care for Victor but has had difficulty finding quality, affordable care. "It is amazing," she says. "One child-care center is $800 a month and one is $600."
The Labarthes pay $360 a month for Eduardo's preschool (his scholarship is $300 a month) and $300 a month for Victor's afternoon care. That adds up to $7,920 a year, nearly one-third of the family's income of $25,000. The neighbor, whose son is a friend and attends the same school, charges nothing to care for Fernando from 4 to 6 p.m., an act of largess that moves Sandra to tears when the subject arises.
The Labarthes' daily struggle with child care is not unusual. Many families teeter between workable, satisfying arrangements and a melange of care forged out of immediate need, financial and geographic restrictions, and other variables. The general state of child care as we enter 1996 does not look promising. Patchwork is the name of the game, especially for families with children of varying ages who require different types of care. While thousands fill the limited number of affordable child-care slots in Los Angeles county, thousands more simply cannot afford the fees.
The Labarthe family qualifies for subsidized child care, but the available spots for state and federally subsidized care go to the poorest families first, no matter where the Labarthes are on the waiting list of 3,000, says Patricia Dash, director of child-care services at the state-funded Child Care Resource Center of the San Fernando Valley.
If the Labarthes were to earn just $267 more a month, they would be ineligible for aid. But the point is moot because there are not enough subsidized spots. Crystal Stairs Inc., a state-funded resource and referral agency in Los Angeles that has a 5,000-family waiting list, says it would take 16 years to serve all the families if it closed the list now.
"The child-care crisis is really a mess," says Sandra Labarthe, clearly flummoxed by her family's paradox: too high an income to win a subsidized spot, but not enough money to shoulder the burden of child-care costs. She has looked at eight centers for Victor but has found them too expensive.
"You feel completely lost," she says. "You need peace of mind to be productive. We both have to work to afford food, rent and insurance. Our money is gone at the end of the month. How are we going to afford child care? I feel like we are fighting just to survive. Still, you want to give your children the best. It's really a headache."
Giving their children the best is a dilemma in thousands of homes throughout Southern California. According to figures culled from the 1990 U.S. Census and the 1990 National Child Care Survey, more than 1.7 million children younger than 12 live in Los Angeles County. One million of these have one or both parents working or attending school.
* 400,184 of the 1 million are not in child care.
* The supply of licensed child-care spaces in Los Angeles County is exceeded by 194,725 children.
Almost 32,000 families are on waiting lists for subsidized child care at state-funded referral services. To qualify for state and federal subsidies, a family of four in Los Angeles County must earn less than $32,000 a year, but most families using or awaiting subsidized child care are far poorer, says Alice Walker Duff, executive director of Crystal Stairs. They are accepted ahead of families like the Labarthes, who have a low enough income to qualify for help but earn more than other low-income families.
According to 1993 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for a family of four in Los Angeles County is $39,000. Such a family with an infant and preschooler would spend almost a third of its income on 50 weeks of full-time care.
With federal budget cuts proposed, the prospects for improvement on the child-care scene are grim. "What's really frightening is the prospect of two-tiered child care," says Kathleen Malaske-Samu, a Los Angeles County child-care coordinator. "Parents who can afford it will have really good quality child care and parents who don't have the resources will have even fewer choices than they have now, and the protection and quality is also going to be reduced.
"We are risking the well-being of a whole generation of children who are put into child care so young and when they are so vulnerable. We could do it right but we don't."
* Who's Minding the Kids? The working parents' dilemma: What to do with the kids? Quality, affordable care is available, but where? What's the best way to find it? Should government and employers play roles? We offer a guide that might help ease the minds of some parents. Page E3