Strapped for money, time parents search for quality day care

Left to right Claire Carlson gets the leg lock from her mother Mary recently. As Carson City daycare becomes harder to attain single parents become more reliant on babysitters.  photo by Rick Gunn

Left to right Claire Carlson gets the leg lock from her mother Mary recently. As Carson City daycare becomes harder to attain single parents become more reliant on babysitters. photo by Rick Gunn

Staying at home to care for her infant daughter wasn't an option for Mary Carlson three years ago.

"I have to work," said the single mother of Claire, now 3 years old.

So Carlson, 48, found herself in a less-than-favorable position and a self-admitted state of denial when it came to her daughter's care.

"I think that due to the limited availability of infant care, you're lucky to find a provider and once I found that provider, I discovered I was trying very hard to not offend her so that I wouldn't lose her," she said. "Because of that fact I closed my eyes to some things."

In retrospect, Carlson can see that Claire's care was not ideal.

After the birth of her daughter, Carlson interviewed and decided on a privately owned day-care center.

Anne Marie Cardinal ran a state-licensed day care from her home on Race Track Road in Carson City.

Cardnal's house was immaculate, Carlson said, and the days appeared to be structured, well worth the $95 per week she paid for the care.

Carlson said she was pleased to have found someone with impressive references who would take in her then-2-month-old baby girl. Carlson said Cardinal took care of a number of children of local fire fighters.

One evening when Carlson collected Claire from day care, the baby was covered in human bite marks.

She said Cardinal told her another child had bitten the baby and she had taken care of the situation.

"She gave me a story that seemed plausible at the time."

Carlson said she knew that Claire must have cried out when bit, so how was it that more than one mark was found on the baby? Did that mean Claire was left alone, she wondered?

"But I was afraid to say anything that might feel like I was accusing her of neglect," she said. "I was afraid to lose my provider."

Eventually Carlson did lose her day-care provider when Cardinal and her husband moved to Virginia Beach, Va.

Cardinal was convicted last year in Virginia of child neglect for putting children inside a closet at her home-run child-care center there. In December 2000, she was given a 60-day suspended jail sentence and ordered to allow random state inspections of her Virginia Beach day-care business.

Cardinal testified that she put children in a closet only so they could nap undisturbed. Prosecutors, however, claimed she did it whenever she became tired.

Some Virginia Beach parents said their children spent as much as half their time in the child-care center alone in a 3-by-4-foot closet in an upstairs bedroom.

"It wasn't until I learned about (the conviction in Virginia) that I then began to reflect on how I overlooked some very serious concerns because I was afraid to lose my provider," Carlson said.

Carlson said she felt almost as if she were hostage to her day-care provider.

"I really think that this country is not a child-friendly country," she said. "If the federal government can provide subsidies to cotton farmers, why are we not subsidizing day-care providers? I think that is a reflection of our values as a nation."

Carlson believes if day care were better regulated, incentives were offered to providers to give better care and better wages were paid, the power would be back in the hands of the parents and people providing care would have more reason to excel.

"As an industry child-care providers are not respected. The job pays minimum wage and attracts people who often don't make a career out of it so you have a very high turnover rate," she said.

"Until our country values the profession in an authentic way by putting dollars behind it, I think we are going to be stuck in this situation."

Carlson hopes by telling her story, she'll help other parents to open their eyes to problems they may have with the care of their children. She knows she isn't the only one who has "overlooked" things when it came to the quality of care her child received.

"I am the first person to usually speak up if I am unhappy with something. But I didn't complain with Anne Marie because I was so fearful of being left without a day-care provider," she said. "I have no options. I have to work. If you take someone like me, who has a very big mouth, unwilling to say something, imagine how many parents try to suppress their concerns or worries out of fear they are going left out in the street?"

Carlson encourages parents to talk about their concerns with each other.

"There is this big conspiracy of silence. Parent's don't talk to other parents," she said.

Recently Carlson found herself in another position where there was a question about the care of her child. That Carson City provider was shut down for leaving children unattended. When Carlson called other parents whose children went to the day care, she said she got a hostile reception from most of them.

"They were afraid to believe anything bad," she said.

"Because to believe that was to open up the possibility that other things were going on. If you raise a question about this, then what else might be happening?" she asked. "The parent then has to say, 'My God, my child might be being abused or neglected or both and I can't conceive of that. It's too horrible to embrace.' I think that's why I got the angry responses."

She believes that way of thinking fueled her denial too.

Claire is a healthy and well taken care of toddler now, attending a church-run, day-care program.

Carlson spends her workdays teaching English as a Second Language at Empire Elementary School.

"We regulate the child-care industry, but the standards that we set are minimum standards," Carlson said. "When that's the case, that's all that people will aspire to.

"Something is wrong with one provider for 10 children between the ages of 2 and 3," she said, referring to regulations for Carson City child-care providers.

"I would like to see more federal assistance. I think it could provide for better wages, which would attract a more stable work force. That would give parents more options and more people would be attracted to the industry and setting up day cares. When they're paid less than garbage men, who wants to go into the field?"


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