Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

In Virginia, child care doesn’t command the attention it deserves

Child care in Virginia is too often treated as an afterthought, a messy little detail, the frilly toothpick on a blue plate special.

Whether it’s in the public, private, corporate or religious sectors, the care and nurture of this state’s tiniest people gets less attention, regulation and oversight than strip mall nail salons.

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About 400,000 Virginia children spend their days in unregulated day-care settings. And that’s perfectly legal in this state, which ranks at the bottom of national child-care rankings for quality.

There are more than 1,000 child-care centers run by religious organizations, which are exempt from the state’s already flaccid licensing standards.

And each year, a handful of children in unregulated centers needlessly die, as Post writer Brigid Schulte explained in the Sunday paper.

So it was especially depressing to learn last week that one of Northern Virginia’s shining examples of employer-based child care is being shut down for financial reasons by one of the state’s wealthiest companies, Inova Health System.

The executives at Inova said it is costing them $1 million to run the three centers at Inova Fair Oaks, Inova Fairfax and Inova Mount Vernon hospitals. The day cares currently serve 180 families but have been used by thousands during the past 30 years.

I received plenty of comments from folks who applauded the shutdown of something they themselves didn’t use, calling it a perk.

That attitude scares me.

A perk is something like the posh offices for Inova executives in Falls Church known as “the Crystal Palace.” A perk is holding symposiums and meetings at the Ritz-Carlton, as Inova has. A perk is hiring Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Darrell Green to hang out with you and promote fitness at executive retreats, as Inova has. Or lavishly funding the Washington Mystics — co-sponsoring them with Dunkin’ Donuts — as part of an anti-obesity campaign, as Inova has. Or getting a bonus of least $670,000 on top of a $1.13 million base salary, as Inova CEO Knox Singleton has. (His total take-home in 2011, according to the nonprofit group’s public tax returns, was $3.4 million).

A child-care facility that charges market rates that allow workers with unconventional schedules to perform the demanding, round-the-clock tasks of caring for the region’s ill, injured or elderly while their children are nearby is not a perk. It is a human need to make this particular profession workable and to make the future taxpayers of our society healthy, happy and whole.

I got a flood of e-mails from nurses and other health-care workers who have used the child care, love it and are now having a tough time finding new care before the centers close in August. Because even if it wasn’t perfect — the facilities usually closed at 6:30 p.m., one hour before the standard nursing shift was over — it was close by and it enabled the workers who actually do hands-on patient care to keep working.

Parents who were looking forward to a meeting with executives this Tuesday were disappointed to hear that Inova decided to cancel it.

People who are used to real perks have a hard time understanding what a vital need child care is to make America’s middle-class families function.

When one of the mothers whose child died in an unlicensed facility met with Virginia state lawmakers to try to push for tighter regulation, Sen. Steve Martin, a Republican from Chesterfield who chairs the education and health committee, said he would never put his children in care with someone he didn’t personally know.

How nice for him. Too bad most Americans don’t have the luxury of his choices.

A baby who died in an unlicensed, unregulated church-based child-care center in Virginia was the 7-week-old son of a former Navy boatswain.

The story is heartbreaking, but plenty of people had no sympathy for the mother of Dylan Cummings.

“On what planet is it appropriate to put a 7-week-old baby in day care?” one reader asked in the story’s online comment section. “Why are people having babies that they cannot afford to properly care for?”

On what planet do people have the gall to ask questions like that? Somehow, folks believe that every woman — from hospital executive to Navy sailor — gets to pick whatever she thinks is best for her and the baby.

Remember the groundbreaking Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993? The thing that was supposed to make it all better if you had a kid and didn’t want to lose your job?

That gives you only 12 weeks of unpaid leave to stay with your infant. At 12 weeks, they’re just learning to prop themselves up on their elbows during tummy time. It is physically wrenching to leave a baby to head back to work at this point. But hey, this is apparently the best we can do for working parents.

Virginia doesn’t hesitate to regulate what it cares about. This is a state that imposes all kinds of rules on health clinics that perform abortions, even specifying an exact and unusual size of door. Oh, and it’s also the state that tried to legislate vaginal probes for any woman about to get an abortion.

You can’t have it both ways, Virginia.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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