Detective Marva H. Preston and three other Miami City homicide detectives arrived at an inner city housing project at 3:45 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1986. The rescue squad was already there, but it was too late. A 3-year-old child and a 4-year-old child were dead. They had been badly burned inside a clothes dryer. Their mother had not been able to find anyone to care for them and had left them alone briefly because she was afraid of losing her job.

That, folks, is the state of child care in America today. There are children who are dying because their parents cannot find or afford child care. There are children who are dying because Congress and the Reagan administration cut 20 percent out of child care support funding in 1981 instead of adding 20 percent -- or doubling it -- so women such as that mother could have had a place to take their children instead of leaving them alone at home to crawl inside a clothes dryer.

Preston came to Washington last week to testify at a hearing on child care held by the Senate's subcommittee on Children, Families, Drugs and Alcoholism. The story she told is as damning an indictment of our national priorities as any to come along in a long time. She made the point of telling the subcommittee that her department is busy, and she had to get special permission to come here. "However, my supervisors felt that this was a good opportunity to express our concern for the urgent need of child care for working parents." The investigation of the children's deaths, she said, "brought us face to face with a tragic reality, things some of us had only heard of."

The mother, said Preston, was employed as a cafeteria worker. "Approximately two years ago she was placed on a waiting list to receive child care assistance for her children. She had contacted the agency many times but she didn't get any help. She was not financially able to put them in a private day care center. A relative had lived with her during the past year, and she looked after the children. Without any notice, she moved out" on Saturday, Nov. 1. On Monday, "the mother stayed home from work because she couldn't find anyone to keep them.

"On Tuesday, Nov. 4, a woman who risked losing her license for keeping too many children agreed to keep them for that day only. On Wednesday, Nov. 5, a friend of hers agreed to keep them."

On Nov. 6, "the mother could not find anyone to keep the children. She had taken {one day} off and was very hesitant about taking another. She finally decided that the children would be safe alone for a short time.

"After she got to work, she would contact her sister or her niece and have one of them go over to look after the children. We also verified that after the mother got to work she called home and spoke with the children. She tried to call her sister to have her go by and pick up the children. She contacted several other relatives who were at work or going to work. When she called home again and did not get a response, she made numerous calls to get someone to check on the children.

"She eventually left work early because no one was answering her phone. She arrived home and did not find the children. She assumed that her sister or her boyfriend had come by and picked them up. She began making phone calls as she sat down to fold clothes.

"Then she opened the dryer and found her children badly burned. Miami Fire Rescue responded and found the children dead."

Tests conducted on the dryer determined that the door could be easily pulled closed from the inside and firmly shut. The dryer was a type that could be stopped by opening the door, and then restarted simply by closing the door. "Background information showed that one of the children had a fascination for the dryer," Preston testified.

"Our state attorney's office reviewed our investigation and agreed with us that there was no criminal negligence by the children's mother.

"These children died because they were not supervised. Their mother felt that she had to make a decision between providing for her children by keeping her job or staying home again and risk losing her job. She wanted to be able to work and provide food and shelter. She did not want to be on welfare. She wanted her children to get to school and be among other children. She fed them before leaving and assured herself that they would be safe until she contacted someone to go over and watch them.

"This lady will always have to live with the fact that the decision she made resulted in her children losing their lives," said Preston. "Our jobs are to try and prevent this tragedy from ever happening again."