Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

After protests, Inova Health System opts to keep day-care centers open

Doctors and nurses cried, passing around several boxes of tissues.

Parents who work for Inova Health System made it pretty clear to their employer at a big meeting last week that shutting down the child-care centers at three of its hospitals would devastate their families.

(Courtesy of William Keating) - The Uptown Girls: The 11-12 girls basketball team who was banned from the tournament but then reinstated. They won the whole tournament final score 17 to 15.

Inova executives had already received plenty of bad publicity about their announcement, including from me.

“I heard about it all weekend, from friends, from neighbors,” said Angie Mannino, senior vice president of human resources at Inova.

But most importantly, they heard what their doctors, nurses, therapists and other employees at Inova Fair Oaks, Inova Fairfax and Inova Mount Vernon hospitals had to say and decided to keep the beloved child-care centers open, with some changes.

“It’s a victory for working parents everywhere,” one worker exulted when she heard the news.

The hospital system, which is swimming in money and on a billion-dollar building binge, initially said it was closing the child-care centers because they were costing about $1 million a year.

After I wrote about the decision, I was flooded with e-mails from people who depend on those day-care centers. The fact is, not only is quality child care difficult to find, few centers operate with anything other than traditional bankers hours. And last I checked, hospitals are open and full of the people who save, nurse and mend the rest of us 24-7.

The outpouring continued online, where a Change.org petition to keep the centers open got 602 signatures and dozens of testimonials.

“Like many parents who have children at any of the centers, I am completely blown away regarding this decision, and how seemingly out of left field it feels,” Kristen Rupell of Reston wrote on the petition Web site. “I have maintained my employment at Inova for over a decade primarily for this benefit.”

Not only was it devastating for the families who have been able to stay afloat during this recession thanks to the centers’ flexible system, the decision would also leave dozens of child-care workers who have been at the centers for decades unemployed.

“I would not have been able to work the hours that I work had it not been for this center,” Minh Ngo of Alexandria wrote on the petition Web site. “Through our 9 years with the (Mount Vernon Hospital) daycare, the teachers and my children’s classmates have been like a second family to me and my husband.”

And the larger story — the message that went beyond the 180 families who currently use the centers and the thousands of others who had been there in the past 30 years — was that even when child care is nearly perfect, if it’s not profitable, it’s not worth it.

Mannino said no one will lose their child care, but there will be a new system in place. The centers will be run by a third-party vendor that hasn’t been selected yet. She said they’ve been trying lots of different models to make the resource available to more families (only 1 percent of the approximately 16,000 people who work at Inova use it, though the waiting list for all the centers is epic).

The centers have traditionally been fully staffed, though employees don’t always have their kids in care full time. Unlike child-care facilities that the rest of us get to use, Inova employees didn’t have to pay when their kids weren’t there.

My younger child doesn’t stay all the way until 6 p.m. at his aftercare every day. But because I’m never sure what my schedule is and when I’m going to use it, I have to pay for a full-time slot. That’s what Inova will look like after Aug. 31, once the transition to another provider is complete.

The good news is that a new vendor will probably be able to allow much more extended hours (like from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m.) and may be able to stay open on weekends. An outside provider will also work to open the centers up to non-Inova families, Mannino said.

They’re pretty sure they can’t make the new vendors hire all of those beloved child-care workers. “But they know who is good,” Mannino said.

It may not be perfect, but as long as the centers stay open, it’s better than the alternative.

Clearly, Inova executives weren’t expecting the blowback they got from working parents. “This whole thing has been a profound journey,” Mannino said.

That same thing can be said of a group of Washington girls I wrote about last week.

The Uptown Girls, a D.C. Department of Recreation 11-to-12 girls basketball team was disqualified from the citywide championship tournament a week ago. Officials learned that one 12-year-old had been playing on two different rec teams. Big time, right?

Well, the city reversed the decision a few hours after my column went online and the girls — sans one suspended player and a suspended coach — played some ball at the Verizon Center on Saturday.

They won the citywide championship, 17-15.

What a great week for second thoughts.

To read earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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