- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

Andrea O'Grady started looking for day care even before her daughter, Grace, was born. She found child care centers to be too crowded. A nanny seemed both isolating and expensive.

After months of searching, Mrs. O'Grady, a TV news producer, found a great fit: a family child care provider. Grace soon began spending her days at Ginny Holloway's Alexandria home, where there were toys to play with, friends to make and a quiet place to nap.

Grace joined a small group of infants and toddlers there.

"I liked the fact that Ginny could give her one-on-one attention, but there is also a small group there," Mrs. O'Grady says. "She and the other kids have been growing up together."

Grace, who is now 3 and a part-time preschooler, still goes to Mrs. Holloway's home. Her baby brother, Jack, recently joined the group, too.

"It is a business relationship," Mrs. O'Grady says, "but I have come to see Ginny as a member of our family. She is such a big part of my child's life."

Family child care providers such as Mrs. Holloway are found in neighborhoods all over the Washington area. Ideally, they are licensed by the state or county to care for a small group of children. Family child care differs from child care centers in that children of different ages are cared for in one home. Children do activities such as playing in the yard or listening to music they typically would do at home.

"Some parents really love the atmosphere you get in a family day care," says Ann Douglas, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Childcare." "Various ages can be accommodated together, routines are more likely to be respected, there sometimes is flexibility in full time or part time, and it tends to be less expensive."

However, as in any child care situation, there can be drawbacks as well, Ms. Douglas says.

"Some providers are truly in it only for the money," she says. "The good providers are doing it because they truly love children. Another drawback is there might not be a backup in place. If your sitter gets the flu, then there goes your day."

Finding the perfect fit

Mrs. Holloway, 51, was a working mother with two teenage sons and a baby daughter when she opened for business 14 years ago. Daughter Missy, who grew up with the child care children as her playmates, is in high school.

Mrs. Holloway has come to see child care as her career. She is president of the Northern Virginia Family Child Care Association, a nonprofit professional group for caregivers. She is licensed by Fairfax County to care for up to five children in her home. She often attends workshops for caregivers on topics ranging from toddler behavior to fun craft projects.

A day at her house may involve playing in the fenced yard, doing puzzles, playing with Legos and reading stories.

Mrs. Holloway says she likes to tailor the activities to the ages, interests and temperaments of the children. After one toddler recently expressed an interest in butterflies, Mrs. Holloway taught the children how to make a paper collage that looked like one.

"It is not a school, but there are always learning opportunities," she says. "They experience things they typically would at home. I love doing this. I love the children, and I love being my own boss."

Becky Hernandez, the mother of two grown children, became a licensed provider 13 years ago. A group of two infants and two toddlers comes to her immaculate Alexandria home most days. She has a fenced yard, a fleet of Little Tikes cars, children's art projects on the walls and plenty of toys and space. On the weekends, she rolls the carts carrying diapers and board books back into the attic, drawing the line between home and work.

"I definitely feel these are my kids," Mrs. Hernandez says as she breaks up a minor squabble between 2-year-olds Peyton and Noelle, both of whom want to play with a Cookie Monster toy. "Some days, when you feel sad, it is so great to have a little pair of arms wrap around you and say, 'I love you.'"

Terry, a federal government employee from Springfield who requested that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, said she was sold on the idea of family child care for her daughter, Noelle, after she interviewed Mrs. Hernandez.

"I like the idea that it is a home setting rather than having the kids in one room," says Terry, who also will send her baby, due this winter, to Mrs. Hernandez's home when she returns to work. "Noelle is in good hands."

Both Mrs. Hernandez and Mrs. Holloway, who charge about $180 a week per child for full-time care, say communication is the key to parents and caregivers working together.

"There have been conflicts," Mrs. Holloway says. "This is still a business, and some people don't understand that. It is hard to be assertive without being aggressive. We need to work together."

Mrs. O'Grady says her experience has been successful because she and Mrs. Holloway share the same child-rearing philosophies.

"We talk all the time," Mrs. O'Grady says of Mrs. Holloway. "We need to be on the same level about discipline, socialization, potty training."

In fact, Mrs. O'Grady says she gets lots of parenting tips from Mrs. Holloway.

"I go to Ginny for advice all the time," she says. "She is a wealth of information. She has done this for so many years."

Things to consider

There are several places to turn when looking for a family child care provider. There are county referral agencies, which keep listings of licensed providers, and there are private, for-profit referral agencies. Asking other parents about their family day care experience also can lead a family to a good provider.

Licensing requirements are similar in Maryland, Virginia and the District. To have a state or county license, a provider must be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification, undergo a fire inspection and criminal background checks, and take annual training courses in child development and programming. The caregiver also must provide character references and have an adequately childproofed home.

In Maryland, providers also can meet additional optional criteria, such as more training in child development and psychology, to obtain a higher-status child care credential.

Licensing and renewal in most jurisdictions are also subject to annual scheduled visits. In Maryland, providers must be subjected to additional unscheduled visits at least once every two years. That law went into effect after two babies suffocated at the home of a licensed Kent Island provider.

Gail Bjorklund, program administrator for the Fairfax County Office for Children, the county group that administers licenses and refers parents to providers, says she advises families looking for day care to call and visit several providers' homes to get a feel for their philosophies, personalities and facilities.

"One of the things we do is offer a checklist for parents," Ms. Bjorklund says. "That way they can decide what things are important to them. There are always positives and negatives."

Ms. Douglas says licensing only covers the basics, such as fire safety and CPR training. Only personal recommendations and visits can tell a parent if the environment is stimulating and the caregiver is attentive and loving.

"Licensing doesn't necessarily mean good," she says. "But if you go for an interview and if the person has menu plans, lists of activities and crafts on the walls, that is going to tell you a lot."

A private referral agency may give some parents additional security. Susan Agnir, president of Monday Morning Moms, which makes referrals and provides backup care in Montgomery County, says her list of caregivers meets criteria above and beyond county and state requirements.

"Our caregivers meet state requirements such as background checks, CPR training, health certification and fire safety inspection," Ms. Agnir says. "But we do our own screening, too. We want our referrals to have a level of professionalism. The first criteria: They must love children, and making money cannot be the primary motivation."

Licensing agencies also serve as places for parents to turn should they have complaints.

Family child care like any day care situation is not infallible. In December 1998, a Herndon caregiver was sentenced to three years in prison after she shook and seriously injured a 10-month-old. In early 2000, an Arlington child care provider, licensed to care for no more than five children, pleaded guilty to several misdemeanor charges after she was found to have up to 42 children in her home. Last year, a Laurel caregiver was convicted of manslaughter, child abuse and assault after she shook a 15-month-old, who later died from her injuries.

Juliette, a working mother from Reston who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, took her 4-month-old son to a licensed caregiver who was recommended by a neighbor. Less than two months later, other parents suspected neglect had been occurring at the home. Juliette switched her son to a larger child care center.

"I like the system of checks and balances better," says Juliette, whose son, now 3, still goes to Reston Children's Center, along with his 11-month-old sister. "I think they have more opportunities that children in family day care do not, such as field trips. It seems more like teaching than baby-sitting."

Mrs. Holloway says parents should ask friends for recommendations but also should check licensing, personal references and their own instincts.

"If you are not comfortable, then how are you ever going to be at ease leaving your children there?" she asks.

Ms. Douglas says references should come from families who had children of a similar age in that provider's care.

"This is a big thing," she says. "Some people may be great with babies, but not with kids. I also recommend a pre-visit, where you can bring your child and see how he or she interacts. Ask how long she has been in business. Check state records for complaints.

"One important thing find out if you can drop by at any time," Ms. Douglas says. "You should be able to spot-check. Look at a provider's body language when she is interacting with kids, too. Is she talking down to them? Or is she right on their level? See how your personalities mesh, too. After all, you are going to be spending more time with this person than you will with your best friend."

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