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laire Best Hawley, a production executive at a film studio, began looking for child care last fall while she was still pregnant with her daughter, Lara, and what she found during her search was distressing.
For starters, there were only two day-care centers within a four-mile radius of her West Hollywood, Calif., home that accepted infants, and neither stayed open past 6 p.m. Both happened to be full anyhow. More important to her, however, was the issue of quality. At some of the centers Mrs. Hawley visited, each attendant was responsible for twice the number of children that she considered acceptable. An accredited home-based provider she checked looked little better; she said the children there looked like couch potatoes parked in front of a television set.
"It was very disappointing to me, what I saw, as far as a general lack of concern toward child care," said Mrs. Hawley, 35, who works at New Line Cinema. She hired a private nanny after Lara, now five months old, was born, figuring that was the best way to ensure quality care.
The problems Mrs. Hawley encountered are certainly not new; they are shared by countless other working parents across the country. What is new, however, is that after years of looking mostly at availability and affordability, child care researchers are now teasing out the factors that are the best predictors of quality and examining how they relate to children of various ages and socioeconomic groups.
The studies may help some families home in on what is important as they search for quality care. Some of the recent findings are surprising, or challenge traditional wisdom. Still, they come at a crucial time in child care, many professionals say. A still- tight labor market, combined with extremely high turnover and dismally low wages within the child care industry, makes finding quality care tougher than it used to be.
"My general sense is that the education, experience and qualification of individuals who are caring for children today are less than they were just a year or two ago," said Ruby Takanishi, chief executive of the Foundation for Child Development in Manhattan.
Eve Edelman Russ, 43, a medical center administrator from Larchmont, N.Y., could not agree more. "I'm getting nowhere fast," said Ms. Russ, who is hunting for after- school care for her daughter, Ariel, 10, and son, Eli, 6. Ms. Russ said she had problems not only finding someone with appropriate experience and good references but also someone who would show up for an in- person interview. She has already interviewed about 50 women over the telephone, she said, but many of them are demanding more than the $10 an hour she is willing to pay.
High-quality child care is linked to better development in children. But while the three factors that have been traditionally associated with quality -- training, small group size and low attendant-to-child ratios -- still appear to be important, other crucial factors are only now coming to light, said Prof. Deborah A. Phillips, chairwoman of the psychology department at Georgetown University.
In a recent study, Professor Phillips found that wages were the strongest predictor of quality at 104 child care centers in Boston, central Virginia and Atlanta. She speculates that higher wages contribute to job stability, which in turn fosters closer bonds between attendants and children and helps development.
Other researchers have argued for the importance of wages as a determinant of care quality. But when it comes to sustaining quality over time, the strongest predictor may well be whether a care provider employs a high number of well-trained people, specifically those with both college degrees and training in early-childhood education, said Marcy Whitebook, a senior researcher at the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Berkeley.
Dr. Whitebook, along with three other principal researchers, last month completed one of the first large studies to track changes in child care quality. The study, which began in 1994, involved dozens of centers in Northern California. It found that while child care programs that were accredited by a prominent group, like the National Association for the Education of Young Children, were of generally higher quality than nonaccredited programs, nearly 30 percent of the accredited centers were rated as mediocre over all, while only one-third of the centers were able to sustain a high level of quality over a four- year period.
Dr. Whitebook suggested that parents pay particular attention to hiring practices -- the average time that child care providers have been on the job, for example, and how much they are paid. "Don't ask about turnover specifically," she said. "The goal is not to have an antagonistic conversation, but to focus on positive steps that are being taken."
Other researchers are zeroing in on the connection between safety and quality in child care, and some of their findings have been surprising. So-called nanny deaths, in which a child succumbs to injuries inflicted by a private care provider, are far rarer than one might think, despite recent publicity, according to a not-yet-published study of 567 cases in which children died while in some type of child care situation. In fact, they accounted for just 15 percent of the fatalities, said Julia Wrigley, a sociologist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who conducted the study.
Deaths related to child care are rare indeed, Professor Wrigley said. Still, home- based care, in which several children are cared for by one person in his or her home, appears to pose the most risk. Professor Wrigley's study, for example, found that reported deaths of infants who were under the care of a home-based care provider were almost seven times more common than deaths at child care centers.
Parents, though, may take some comfort in the fact that simply being in a formal child care program seems to lead to a modest improvement in a child's language and academic skills, according to Dr. Margaret Burchinal, a statistician who is collecting data for a child care study that has been sponsored over the last decade by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Child care researchers say their job is far from over. There is still the daunting task of translating their findings into ways to change policy. Dr. Burchinal, who works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says researchers also need to determine whether similar factors apply in assessing quality at day-care centers and in other child care arrangements like home- based care.
At Georgetown, Professor Phillips would like to see more research into what shapes consumer views on child care. "When you ask parents about quality, it typically bears very little relationship to what trained researchers find when they go into child care centers," she said. "The vast majority of parents will say that their child care settings are wonderful, and we, in fact, know that many are not."
For some parents, a change in priorities may be in order. "Child care continues to be an emotionally laden issue," said Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. "While researchers are now making finer grade distinctions between particular aspects of programs, those distinctions seem to keep getting lost in the continued shuffle over whether child care is good or bad for children."
Many working parents, however, may feel overwhelmed just in looking for any kind of reasonable child care, said Dr. David Milov, a pediatrician in Orlando, Fla., who is also the founder of QualKids.com, a Web site that offers child care resources. "Child care decisions are still made mostly on the basis of location, prices and hours of operation, while issues like staff training and facility curriculum are usually secondary," he said.
For Mrs. Hawley, quality was paramount. And in the end, she hired Shawnee Rioles, 24, a former preschool teacher, as a nanny. "For quality to occur in this field, you need very dedicated people," Ms. Rioles said. "But it also takes decent pay."
And that has come at a big price for Mrs. Hawley and her husband,
Jordan, a freelance writer. Paying Ms. Rioles' $450-a- week salary
has meant sacrifices -- like staying on in a rented house while
renting out one they recently bought.