Adventures In Babysitting

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As welfare reform and economic pressures put more parents to work, the biggest job of all is figuring out who’ll watch the kids. Quantity over quality is the new credo as the city neglects its established day care system and throws money into an untested new one.

From the street, it’s hard to understand why 56,000 kids are trying to sign up for the Sherman Avenue Day Care Center, or anyplace like it. The squat, graffiti-tagged former garage, just a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium, blends in easily with its down-at-heels neighborhood. It doesn’t look one bit like a place parents would want to let their kids get near–never mind leaving them there five days a week.

But inside, where a flock of 4-year-olds nestles on cots for an afternoon nap, the reason for the waiting list becomes obvious. Each class of 16 children is assigned three trained experts–a head teacher, an assistant teacher and an aide. Head teachers are state-certified, with a masters’ degree and a $32,000-a-year salary. The center, run by a Bronx nonprofit, is licensed by the city’s Department of Health, certified and subsidized by the city Agency for Child Development (ACD), and supervised by the nonprofit. It’s part of a reputable and extremely popular network of day care providers that serves 58,500 children from poor and working-class families each year.

The arrangement, in place since the Lindsay administration, allows parents to feel confident that their children are in good hands while they’re at work. Often, it’s what allows them to go to work at all. For each kid, the city kicks in an average of $6,500 in state, federal and city money each year, and most parents pay nothing at all. For them, it’s a cheap, trustworthy deal. And that means it’s totally oversubscribed.

In addition to the tens of thousands currently on the city’s waiting list, another 50,000 could join them this year alone, one child care referral agency predicts, as welfare reform sends poor women to work. Low overall unemployment and growing numbers of women at work add to the fix: More New Yorkers than ever need child care.

Simply expanding the current system is not much of an option for this budget-obsessed administration because it has stumbled onto a cheaper way to deliver child care: an army of unregulated underground babysitters. Instead of taking a tip from what the old system does right–like regulate, certify and train–and adapting it to a cheaper scheme, the city’s welfare bureaucrats have decided to take day care full-tilt into privatization.

In this system, parents get vouchers, most of them worth between four and five thousand dollars annually per child, which they can spend as they choose–usually, for reasons that include a six-day deadline for workfare participants to find child care, on neighborhood babysitters. Under this plan, day care providers are less regulated than hairdressers, bartenders or garbage carters. But they will be getting city money.

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Outside of ACD, there are four basic options for working families: private day care centers, licensed providers who watch small groups of children in their homes, paid babysitters, or informal arrangements with family or friends. The 610 private day care centers in the city are the most regulated (and expensive) option. The biggest study on day care, conducted by the National Institutes of Health, has shown that well-run centers are generally the best choice for parents who can’t stay at home with their kids. In New York, they are licensed by the city Department of Health under rigorous rules. Classes are kept small. Head teachers are supposed to be certified by the state and registered in early-childhood education. But fees for enrolling there can run as high as $16,640 a year.

The next option is child care run semi-formally out of someone’s apartment. Some providers are excellent, but anybody can set one up at home–the caretaker must simply register with the Health Department and pass muster with a child abuse registry and fingerprint file. Very rough estimates on the number of these “family care” providers suggest there are three to four thousand in the city. About 2,100 are part of a group of networks administered by nonprofits and subsidized by ACD.

Or parents can try to find a good babysitter. While babysitting can be cheap–as little as $3,600 a year in a poor neighborhood–it’s also highly variable, sometimes downright lousy. Word-of-mouth leads to a good sitter. Well-to-do New Yorkers can pay as much as $30,000 a year.

But there are 470,000 preschool-age kids in poor or low-income families in New York City, according to the latest survey from the Citizens’ Committee for Children. For most New Yorkers, the only realistic option is the old-fashioned kind of child care: leaving the kids, for little or no money, with grandma, a sister or a close friend who has a complementary working schedule. A 1999 nationwide study by Child Trends, a research center in Washington, D.C., found that 87 percent of preschool children of poor working families are in these kinds of non-paid arrangements.

In a study of Harlem working families, Harvard urban studies professor Katherine Newman documented the problems with these situations–while convenient, she says, they are “subject to the vicissitudes of the labor market and welfare reform.” Simply put, many people leaving welfare for work are no longer available to provide child care to other people’s children. Given the instability and scheduling demands of most low-paid jobs, day care for poor people is constantly in flux.

It’s also workable only if family is nearby. Hunter College urban affairs professor Peter Kwong says that some hard-pressed immigrant mothers wind up sending their kids all the way back to China to be taken care of by family there. Their only alternative: bringing the kids to work. “It happens all the time,” he says.

So for most working parents, cobbling together babysitters and child care becomes a job in itself. For her 9-month-old daughter, Nakia Matthews uses a typical hodgepodge of childcare. “Me and her father are not together, but when he’s off work on Monday and Tuesday he takes her, and when he goes back to work in the middle of the week my babysitter watches her,” she explains.

But the babysitter, an old family friend who charges almost nothing because she knows that Matthews earns only $360 a week at her customer-service job, is soon going back to school full time at John Jay College. Matthews has been on the ACD waiting list since last June; if a slot doesn’t open up before her friend goes back to college, she’ll have to send her daughter to live with her grandmother outside Philadelphia.

For Novelette Duncan, getting her kids in the ACD system just barely makes it possible for her to get by. A working single mother with four children younger than 8, she scrambled to find a good babysitter after she and her husband separated. The best sitter Duncan could afford cost her almost half of her $23,000 salary.

“It was tough,” Duncan recalls. “I paid $700 a month, which didn’t include meals or anything, or having my older child picked up from school. She was good, but I think after a while the kids started stressing her out.”

Duncan realized she had to find a new sitter when her son mentioned one morning that the woman kept yelling Spanish expletives. Her second sitter also charged $700 a month and didn’t curse. But she did rack up hundred-dollar phone bills while mom was at work.

With no other option, Duncan swallowed her anger and kept the chatty sitter on board. At that point, babysitting and rent took up 70 percent of her income. “I couldn’t breathe,” she says.

Finally, she landed a spot for her kids in the ACD system, after a year and a half on the waiting list. Scheduling now keeps Duncan constantly on the run, but at least her finances are under control. Her 4-year-old goes to the Sherman center from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and her 8-year-old spends afternoons there after school. Her two youngest kids, an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old, spend their days at an ACD-subsidized private home. Duncan pays a total of $140 a month.

“I’m grateful for what I have now, because I’ve been where I didn’t have it,” she says. But it’s not easy. Her son always asks her why he’s the last to get picked up from day care every day. “He breaks my heart. I say, ‘Honey, mommy works from nine to five.’ I really have nobody else to pick up my kids. I have to.”

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The city-run ACD system is largely invisible to wealthier New Yorkers, but it spends $390 million a year taking care of kids under 12. The agency contracts with community groups, like the Children’s Aid Society, the YWCA, church-run charities and settlement houses, that manage some 385 preschool centers and after-school programs. Most of the kids ACD pays for spend their days in these ACD-monitored centers.

About another 14 percent are sent to 3,000 private homes, most of them watched over by one of 54 networks run by nonprofits. The remaining 3 percent are with private babysitters, paid for through ACD vouchers.

Families who take home less than $11,000 a year don’t have to pay for the day care at all. Those families, plus ones eligible to pay less than $10 a week, account for almost three-quarters of the kids in ACD-run child care. The bill that the city pays ranges from $4,000 for a 3-year-old in a private home to $11,000 for an infant in a child care center.

But unfortunately, the system is largely invisible to poor New Yorkers as well. One problem is that parents often don’t know the options. There is a state-funded referral service, where parents can call a counselor who offers practical advice on how to choose a provider. But unless a parent has friends or relatives in the know, there’s a good chance they won’t discover the referral system. And once they do, the headaches aren’t over. Most of the good day care services have waiting lists, forcing parents to cadge referrals over and over again until which works out.

Applying for subsidized care is complex. Eligible parents in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island go directly to the center in which they want to place their kid. Manhattan and Queens families go to their borough ACD office. Care is rationed, so that families caught up in the foster care system get first priority, and some providers report that they’ve been instructed by ACD to give preference to workfare families–something the agency denies.

Novelette Duncan stumbled onto the system by chance. A co-worker, hearing her fret about her children, suggested she look into the office in their building that seemed to have something do with babysitting. She was lucky: It turned out to be Child Care, Inc., a nonprofit referral service that hooked her up with ACD.

The hallmark of ACD is its comprehensive technical support and meticulous inspection. For the kids in private homes, the nonprofit agencies that oversee them send out staff eight times a year to verify that a home is safe and that food is clean and nutritious. In addition, the nonprofits refer families and providers to other social services and train caretakers in infectious disease control, business management, child development and a host of other subjects.

At the day care centers, ACD early-childhood specialists in each borough make regular visits to offer advice and answer questions. Staff from the central office once conducted a three- or four-day evaluation of every center every year, probing into 10 areas, including curriculum, health and safety, food preparation, training in child development, and quality of supervision and administration.

“They are very thorough people,” confirms Sherone Sanchez, who runs an ACD center in Harlem. She nods at the big filing cabinet behind her that holds all the documentation ACD consultants scoured during her most recent assessment, which she passed easily. “It’s one of the reasons I would recommend an ACD center very highly,” she explains. “It might not look like this one. The walls might not be painted. But you know the teachers are generally well qualified, and you know it’s going to be a healthy environment because of the rules put in place by ACD and because they check.”

About a decade ago, says Sherman Avenue director Juliette Cannady, all the Bronx center directors spent six months in a full-time class that taught them a state-of-the-art curriculum to use in their centers. The directors then spent two days a week teaching their staff. It was an extraordinary experiment, addressing the ultimate frustration of education policy-makers: how to bring elite ideas in early-childhood education to New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

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But the system is now suffering. Since the start of the Giuliani administration, the assessment unit has been downsized and reconfigured as part of a smaller bureau that concentrates as much on fiscal matters as program review. The old assessment unit had 14 education consultants; the new one has five.

Evaluations like the one Sanchez survived are becoming rare. Inspections now come once every two years on average, according to an assessor who spoke on condition of anonymity, and some day care centers have gone for three years without getting evaluated.

The borough offices have fewer early-childhood specialists, so they generally show up only when problems come up, says Cannady. In 1989, she recalls, “there might have been maybe eight consultants in the Bronx office. Now there are two. They would come around, come into the classroom, offer assistance every other week or so. Now its down to a visit maybe every two or three months.”

But given what the administration has in the works, ACD oversight cutbacks are only part of the story. Child care advocates worry much more about the sudden expansion of unsupervised babysitting care, paid for by the city through voucher systems run by the welfare agency’s Office of Employment Services as well as by ACD.

Last year, OES handed out 21,000 day care vouchers to parents going into workfare or trying to leave the welfare rolls. Of those vouchers, 19,000, each worth about $4,900 a year, are being used to place kids in makeshift arrangements with unlicensed babysitters.

The arrangements have all the problems of informal child care. For one, the OES voucher system has no oversight. The employment office currently has money budgeted for 16 inspectors to conduct 18 months’ worth of spot checks. Asks policy analyst Toni Porter, director of the Center for Family Support at Bank Street College, “How many of these 19,000 unregulated caregivers is the city going to visit? And is that a good use of city money?”

So far, this inadequate oversight mechanism hasn’t even been used. At a March City Council hearing, welfare chief Jason Turner acknowledged that not one of these new inspectors had yet conducted an inspection.

In practice, the OES voucher program hands over substantial sums of government money to the generally poor friends and family of poor women, without monitoring or supervision. “The question is, should the city be supporting a kind of underground of child care providers that are not in any way subjected to any kind of rays of light that we know to be important, like inspection and minimum health and safety codes, and some aptitude for the job?” asks Citizens’ Committee for Children director Gail Nayowith.

Apparently, the answer from the City of New York is yes. The OES program has grown quickly in recent years, from $35 million in 1996 to $77 million this year. Now, it’s projected to swell to $114 million by 2001.

The strategy is also spreading. Welfare agency brass have been promoting vouchers at ACD, encouraging the agency to put more money and resources into them. It used to be a backwater of the child development agency’s day care programs–until recently, ACD handed out only a few thousand vouchers a year. But last year, while the department’s budget remained constant, it ratcheted up to 16,000 vouchers.

In March, HRA First Deputy Commissioner Mark Hoover told a forum of child care advocates that in the next six months the administration plans to give vouchers to every person on the ACD waiting list who wants one. “We think it’s very important that all the money go out in voucher form,” Hoover said.

Another big question is how the city plans to spend $77 million in new child care dollars that Governor George Pataki has proposed to route to New York City in next year’s budget. ACD deputy commissioner Helen Stirling says the money will be handed out fairly between the welfare and child care agencies. That may be true, say advocates, but in any case the bulk of the money will end up going toward the least dependable kind of day care–private sitters.

It would be a sorry fate for an excellent system, says City Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, chair of the welfare committee. At the close of a hearing in March, he summed it up: “I think if the administration had its way, they would just as soon have everybody in informal care and destroy what has historically been one of the best networks of licensed, regulated day care in the country.”