SUPPORT FOR Informal Child Care Providers

Article excerpt

A majority of children of working parents receive day care from informal providers--friends or relatives of the family. Yet little support exists for these caregivers when they face problems with discipline, health and safety, and parent communication. Human Ecology faculty are working to ensure that informal child care providers receive the training and support they need to give high-quality care and services.

For nine months, mom and dad have been making plans for the future: hunting for cribs, buying a stroller, and borrowing infant clothes from neighbors and friends. Mom has celebrated at baby showers. They have handpicked two names, one for each sex. And they have rushed to decorate the nursery with all the essentials, plus some--rainbow-colored mobiles, clown pictures, and enough stuffed bears to fill a forest. Mom and dad, it seems, have settled every critical detail before the birthday but one: who will care for their newborn when mom returns to work?

If they are like most parents, the answer won't be a licensed child care center. According to the Commerce Department's Census Bureau, only 29 percent of America's 10.3 million children under age five went to an organized facility, such as for day care, in the fall of 1994. Yet, 43 percent, or 4.5 million preschool children, received primary care from relatives other than their mothers.

According to Susan A. Hicks, a senior extension associate in the Department of Human Development since 1997, many parents opt for care by a family member--or in other cases, a friend or neighbor--because they feel their child will be safe with caregivers who share their values and culture. In other words, they know and trust the family friend or neighbor. And unlike licensed facilities, informal child care is likely to be flexible, allowing parents to work part-time or a second shift.

While parents often feel good about informal child care arrangements, Hicks says, little support is available for informal child care providers. As a result, grandparent caretakers can become confused about their roles--should they be the disciplinarian or the spoiler of their grandkids? Friends who care for children may be concerned that their homes don't provide a healthful environment, particularly when the children there pass colds back and forth all winter. Or they may simply need a lesson or two on how to communicate their rules and expectations to parents and kids.

To develop innovative and nonthreatening ways to assist informal child care providers, Hicks set out to assess the needs of informal caregivers in New York State. The qualitative research study was initiated by Josephine Swanson, associate director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Moncrieff Cochran, professor of human development, and funded by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). Completed this year, it resulted in six newsletters designed specifically for informal caregivers on such topics as the role of the caregiver, parent-provider communication, positive discipline, infants and toddlers, early literacy, and health and safety.

"The bottom line in all our work is the children," says Hicks, director of the project. "We want to make sure that caregivers provide the most appropriate environments for children. There's a range of quality in all types of child care settings. But wherever caregivers are on that continuum, they still need support. Our primary goal is to make sure that those who provide informal child care can build on their strengths and have the support and resources to provide high-quality services."

Hicks' informal child care study came in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform laws, which allowed states to start paying subsidy dollars to informal child care providers as long as the parents were working. In New York State, social workers at agencies like the Department of Social Services (DSS) worried that they were handing out money to unlicensed and unregistered child care providers over whom the agency had little control and oversight. …