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Scandal erupted last week local officials learned that a Brooklyn babysitter who allegedly gagged her 19-month-old charge with duct tape, cut his feet and ultimately suffocated him had been accepted into the city’s “informal” child care program. Today, the city pays for nearly 42,000 children to be cared for by informal providers, who are neither trained nor licensed.

Most informal care goes to children whose parents are moving from welfare to work, through the city’s Human Resources Administration. Of the 52,000 children cared for under HRA’s child care programs, about 70 percent are in informal care; another 6,000 working poor families get informal care through the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. That puts more than 1 in 3 New York children being cared for with public money into the hands of adults who have never been trained or undergone inspection. To qualify for payment, providers must submit five pages of paperwork saying that they have safe apartments and do not have criminal backgrounds. Yet no one is charged with checking on whether those things are true. As a result of the death, ACS’ commissioner pledged to run a background check on every informal provider.

Ajoya Leigh is one parent who isn’t worried about background checks; her informal care provider is her mother. A recent graduate of a medical billing training program, the 23 year-old needed child care for her son, Kevin, when she got on welfare a year-and-a-half ago. With Kevin not yet 2, she felt most comfortable leaving him with her mother, and was pleased to find that the welfare agency would pay for that. “They asked ‘do you have somebody who can watch your child for you?’” said Leigh. “And I said ‘Yeah my mother,’ because she was watching somebody else’s kids, too.”

For years, parent and child care advocates have charged that the city steers welfare recipients toward informal care, which costs considerably less than licensed care. A week of informal care for a preschooler runs $95; for licensed care in a center, it’s $170. City officials dispute the claim; “Cost has never been the driving factor” behind using informal care, said Seth Diamond, executive deputy commissioner for the Family Independence Administration.

While nobody disagrees with letting parents choose a relative to care for their child, informal care—geographically scattered, with no central coordination—is incredibly difficult to oversee. “There are very loving grandparents and aunts who provide care,” said Ajay Chaudry, deputy commissioner for child care and Head Start at ACS, but “informal care tends to be a lot more unstable.” It’s a fact that’s acknowledged by HRA, which says it’s begun both to encourage its clients to use licensed care and to offer basic skills training to its informal providers. The more stable child care a parent has, the more likely they are to retain and succeed in their jobs, said Diamond.

That’s a connection Families United for Racial and Economic Equality recognizes as well. The Brooklyn-based organizing group has a new initiative advocating for better pay and benefits for home-based child care providers, whether licensed or not. Leigh’s mother, Jewel Barker-Leigh is one of its first members. Initially, Barker-Leigh said, she didn’t pursue child care as a career, she just “had a neighbor who needed a babysitter.” But as a temporary arrangement turned into a steady check, she began to think about doing it for the long haul—and earning real wages. “If you ain’t got a license,” she said matter-of-factly, “you really ain’t making nothing.”

—Tracie McMillan

Please note: This story has been corrected since originally posted on 3/21.

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