AFTER two young boys were killed in a flash fire at an unlicensed family-day-care home in Queens, N.Y., last month, investigators made a surprising discovery: The owner of the home, an 82-year-old woman, was the sole care-giver for as many as eight children.
Explaining why he and his wife had chosen this low-cost day-care arrangement for their two preschoolers, Lenox Hintzen, the father of one of the victims, said, "I had to use what I could afford."
The tragedy captured few headlines beyond New York - a near-silence that stood in sharp contrast to the noisy media frenzy surrounding Zoe Baird's nanny problems. Yet taken together, the two events serve as reminders that child-care problems affect all parents, from the working poor to the wealthy. This national dilemma still depends largely on individual arrangements, geared to what parents can find and afford. Despite the urgent need, the nation has taken only baby steps toward a solution.
Now that may be changing. Advocates for the family are heartened by a sudden flurry of reports and conferences, all seeking to make child care a national priority.
Today the Committee for Economic Development is releasing a major report, "Why Child Care Matters," documenting the inadequacies of the child-care system in the United States. Among other proposals, the report states that the child-care needs of low-income families should receive priority attention. Low-income parents, it notes, spend between 22 and 25 percent of their income on child care. By contrast, families earning more than $50,000 spend 6 percent or less. The report also calls for improving traini ng and pay for child-care providers and giving attention to the special needs of infants and toddlers.
Later this month, the Child Care Action Campaign in New York expects 500 people to attend a three-day conference on what it calls the "critical connection" between child care and education.
Elsewhere, 93 education experts and business leaders recently signed a letter asking President Clinton to appoint a presidential task force on the economics of child care. The letter, drafted by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, states that the US "can no longer afford to ignore" the problems of its patchwork child-care "nonsystem."
Another group, the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco, also recently released a report analyzing the current system. The report, "Caring for the Future," conservatively estimates that 2 million children in California need child care but are unable to obtain it.
Reports and conferences and task forces are, of course, only the first step. It is easy to talk earnestly about "child-care delivery systems," "financing mechanisms," and "substantive public-private partnerships." What is much harder is translating that bureaucratic jargon into safe, well-equipped centers, competent staffs, and adequate budgets.
Even progress already achieved can't always be taken for granted. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York recently proposed rescinding a law that requires the state to check the names of prospective child-care workers against computerized child-abuse records. The move would have saved the state $1 million. Not surprisingly, child advocates reacted with outrage, and the governor backed down.
If child care is to become a national priority, it must come out of the shadows. What would be the effect, for example, if every working parent - every mother, every father - dared to speak more openly to employers about their child-care arrangements and challenges? What would happen if employers, many of whom have themselves raised children, demonstrated greater sensitivity and compassion for their employees' dual responsibilities?
What is now largely a peripheral subject for many Americans - visible only when two little boys die in the basement of an overcrowded family-day-care home or when a $500,000-a-year corporate attorney loses out as attorney general because she hired an illegal alien as a nanny - must be given greater scrutiny, day in, day out. If the well-being of future adults depends to any degree on the love and wise attention given to them as children, child care should be worth at least a small headline every day.