On Nov. 6, four detectives from the Miami Police Department went to a low-income housing complex where two children, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, were found dead in a clothes dryer. The children's mother had left them alone. She had already missed one day of work because her child care arrangements had temporarily fallen apart and she was afraid she would lose her job as a cafeteria worker if she did not go to work that day.
Marva Preston, one of the detectives who investigated the deaths, recently told a Senate subcommittee that her supervisors sent her to Washington "to express our concern for the urgent need of child care for working parents . . . . This investigation brought us face to face with a tragic reality, things some of us had only heard of."
The tragic reality is that children are dying because their parents cannot find adequate child care. A month later, in Brooklyn, fire broke out in an unlicensed family day care center. The provider was looking after more children than state standards allowed and could not get them all to safety. A 2-year-old and a 4-year-old were killed.
We can now add two more names from this area to the list of children who are dead because of inadequate child care.
On July 2, 20-month-old Antonio Simms of Bowie was found floating in a swimming pool at his baby sitter's home. Police said the pool had a fence around it, and it wasn't clear how the toddler had gotten into the water.
The baby sitter, according to police, was not licensed. Both of Antonio's parents were working. The sitter was watching a total of 12 children, ranging from infants to toddlers. A county ordinance requires people who care for five or more children at least twice a week to be licensed.
The child died at Children's Hospital.
In March, a 2-year-old boy was killed and a 2-year-old girl was injured when their baby sitter, a New Carrollton woman, allegedly beat them after they had wet their clothing. The baby sitter has been charged with first-degree murder. The baby sitter was unlicensed. The parents of both children were working, according to police.
The death of one child was an accident, while the death of the other has resulted in the filing of a criminal charge. What both cases tragically demonstrate is the country's failure to produce a system of good, affordable, monitored day care in which children are flourishing, instead of perishing. In both cases, licensing requirements were not enforced. In the case of Antonio Simms, one person was responsible for caring for 12 children -- a task that boggles the mind.
The move of parents, particularly mothers, out of the home and into the work force has been steadily increasing, and with it, so has the need for child care. Since 1981, however, the limited public funding available for child care has been drastically reduced. Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, recently testified about the severity of the situation for low-income parents before Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism. States with weakened economies, she said, have been hardest hit.
Georgia provides child care for only 8,000 out of 76,000 eligible children. It reduced its child care budget by 37 percent last year by lowering minimal standards for care and reducing the salaries of child care workers. Louisiana is cutting child care funding by 20 percent and already has 9,000 children on waiting lists. States are not enforcing health and safety protections. North Carolina, Blank said, allows one person to care for seven infants. Is there anyone who thinks he or she could give adequate care to seven infants at the same time?
What is happening is a national tragedy. Parents have to work to support their children. Single mothers, particularly, have almost no choice. In 1984, two-thirds of the single mothers and one-fifth of husbands in two-parent families could not earn enough to meet the yearly poverty income level for a family of four, according to Blank. With child care costs averaging $3,000 a year, these families desperately need subsidized care, but most can't get it.
To make matters worse, in 1984, 90 percent of private household child care workers and 58 percent of all other child care workers earned less than poverty-level wages. The children of many of America's working parents are being left alone, or they are being entrusted to a child care system that is subsidized by low wages, overcrowding, understaffing, lack of health and safety standards, and nonenforcement of licensing standards.
And they are dying.