Squeezed on All Sides, Parents Forgo Day Care

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

In the Prince George's County community of Riverdale Park, town officials have noted a distressing sign of the national economic downturn: more children left home alone to fend for themselves by working parents too strapped to afford child care.

The problem was discovered by code enforcement officers who inspect apartments in the town of 7,000. They used to come across such cases once every couple of years. Then, six months ago, they found one child left alone, followed by another and another.

In one instance, a kindergarten-age girl was found hiding in a closet, apparently because she was scared, code enforcement officers said. In another, children aged 10 or 12 were missing school to watch their younger siblings.

Riverdale's experience comes amid an increasing economic strain in child care across the Washington region. In an area known for day-care waiting lists, many operators report a rise in vacancies as parents withdraw their children or cut back on hours because they can no longer afford the cost.

The phenomenon is not universal, but it has struck in many middle- and working-class areas as lost jobs, reduced work schedules and foreclosed homes affect families with few reserves. Many have confronted tough choices about the care of their children.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Phyllis Waters, president of the Professional Child Care Provider Network of Prince George's County. "You're seeing people just dropping out. . . . They're taking them out of day care and putting them into homes with grandmothers and neighbors and whoever else."

There are no statistics on the decline, but Maryland state officials say the economic fallout can be seen in a recent spike in complaints in Prince George's about unregulated, informal day-care providers that operate illegally. In Montgomery County, state officials said, child-care centers that once had waiting lists are reporting vacancies. "We've never seen that trend," said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for the division of early childhood development.

Day-care providers have noted downturns in Dale City, Bowie and Gaithersburg. One District operator whose families rely on child-care subsidies said her parents were unaffected, but a number of families using subsidies in other areas said they had a harder time coming up with their co-payments, which vary according to income. Several child-care centers that serve more affluent families noted little change.

For families with young children, day-care costs can rival a rent or mortgage payment, with an average that can approach almost $1,000 a month for one infant at a child-care center. But as hard times hit home, advocates and parents worry about what children stand to lose in the scaling back, both in early education and, even more, in safety.

"Our fear is that these children are being put in places where there are literally no safety requirements and no background screens, and we just don't know what they are being exposed to," said Linda K. Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

Smith said she does not blame parents for what is "mostly a choice between bad and worse." But she says, "It is terrible in America that there are national policies and state policies that force families into these decisions."

In Annandale, Ana Camacho, a mother of two, said she was waking up three times a night wondering how to make ends meet and care for her children. Her home was in foreclosure. At one point, she even considered the desperate measure of sending her U.S.-born children to live with her mother in Bolivia. "The most important thing is my kids," she said.

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