Who’s caring for the children? | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Who’s caring for the children?

Christina Proctor and Greg Risling

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series that looks at the local and national impact of child care.

Sherry has never needed welfare to support herself and her son, Ryan, but the struggle of single motherhood and finding care for her child is an uphill battle.

Jennifer didn’t feel comfortable leaving her two children in the hands of a stranger, so she became a family home provider.

Joan and her husband finally found good-paying jobs but struggled to find a location that could take their newborn son.

Affordability, quality and availability are the “buzzwords” of child care in the 1990s. The disappearance of the nuclear family and the near necessity and growing opportunities for women entering the workforce begs the question: Who is taking care of our children?

These are just three cases among hundreds that couples and single-parent families are coping with, and they deal with an issue that has taken prominence in political, business and social circles around the United States. Child care crosses all the socioeconomic lines and affects the people who matter the most – kids.

Legislators are starting to listen. President Clinton is expected to propose a variety of new federal subsidies and tax breaks in his State of the Union message in late January, which will help working families acquire quality care.

Nowhere is the need greater than at Lake Tahoe. Tahoe buzzes with electricity and excitement 24 hours a day, thanks to the casino industry. An around-the-clock demand puts a strain on families, who search for adequate care in the early morning hours or for just a few hours in the afternoon.

Parents take a hit to the pocketbook as well.

Predominately low wages and the demand for off-hour care are a costly mix. Many families spend more than 20 percent of their paychecks on child care.

El Dorado County addressed the current state of child care in an April 1997 report. The county’s child care planning council identified infant care as a priority and in the coming wake of welfare reform, parents’ need for more subsidized child care. A report doesn’t always tell the entire story of each person’s struggles, choices and bubbling emotions. Only the people involved in day-to-day child care can speak to the challenges in the industry.


Sherry McGraw, 32, has an associate’s degree in business management and computer accounting. She has worked as an evening cocktail waitress at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe for the last 10 years.

Casino hours don’t fit into the traditional boundaries of family life, but the tips have allowed McGraw and Ryan, 5, to live comfortably. They rent a home, have a car and a little bit extra for activities. After her pregnancy leave, McGraw was faced with finding after-hour and weekend child care for her infant son without the help of relatives or Ryan’s father.

“Child care has always been an issue,” McGraw stated. “I pay around $500 a month for child care, which can be a big cut out of my income, especially when it’s slow at work.

“I was worried about the care he was receiving. Every mother wants the best for her child and nobody can love your child like you can,” McGraw said. “I have to work and that’s a reality, but when things weren’t going well with Ryan’s child care providers, I went to work crying every night. I always think my job is threatened because of child care problems. I wish I could be a provider, but I don’t have the personality or patience for it.”

McGraw said by the time Ryan was 4 years old, he had been kicked out of five different child care groups. The providers classified the toddler, who was big for his age, as having attention deficit disorder and recommended McGraw put her son on medication. McGraw took leave from work using the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 to spend time with Ryan.

“I worked the bare minimum to pay our bills so I could be with him,” McGraw said. “He needed time with me and I’m so glad that option was available to us. Otherwise, I never would have been able to leave work. I would of had to quit, which isn’t really a choice.”

Before McGraw returned to work she found Patricia Mahnke, a California licensed home day care provider, who offers evening and weekend care. Only 21 percent of the total number of licensed family day care homes in El Dorado County provide off-hour care.

In contrast, Choices for Children, a resource and referral agency, reported more than half of their requests were for special schedules in 1995-96.

“Patty has been my support system,” McGraw said. “After Ryan she is the next most important person in my life. I depend on her. Ryan has had a total turnaround. His social skills have really improved and she deserves some of the credit for that.

“Child care is a human emotional business and it’s so important,” McGraw said. “It took me four years to find the right provider and I went through a lot of anxiety.”

McGraw said working evenings has afforded her more time with her son. To help keep the budget free of extras, McGraw doesn’t have cable television, which neither miss. They ski, read books, and spend “quality” time together. When Ryan starts school full-time McGraw said her work schedule will have to change.

“I’ll have to go to a day shift which will mean less money, but my child care costs will be lower,” McGraw said. “He has to come first.”

McGraw said her story is just one of many.

“There are lots of women like me working at the clubs,” McGraw said. “I’ve loved working at Harrah’s, for the people I’ve met, and the life it’s allowed me to live, but they have little understanding for child care problems or family life.”


Jennifer David has her hands full.

A young toddler needs her shoe tied. Another child tugs on her pantleg pleading to go to the bathroom. Wade, a 4-year-old with a future career in construction, builds a skyscraper of colored blocks that teeters on the brink of disaster. There is a staccato of high-pitched screams, ear-piercing yells and mumbled murmurs.

It’s a symphony of noise interspersed with bursts of pandemonium.

Jennifer is a trooper much like the other 45 people who open their Tahoe homes to family day care. The mother of two expands her family to six, Monday through Friday, 10 hours a day. She is fortunate because all of her clients are friends and the agonizing screening process that occurs between parent and provider isn’t a pressing topic.

She decided to quit teaching and enter the child care field after her daughter, Bailey, was born. Jennifer said it wasn’t a hard decision because she wanted to be close to her children. Plus, it gave her an opportunity to be an outlet for other parents who have similar circumstances.

“I didn’t want to leave my kids with people I really didn’t know,” she said. “I’d much rather be here than anywhere else.”

Families who have questions about day care need only to look at Choices for Children, which pairs up inquiring parents with state-licensed caregivers. More than three-quarters of the agency’s customers use Choices for employment-related situations. The organization asks detailed questions of the parents because counselors will have a better idea which provider matches their needs.

“It’s important for a parent to screen for their own needs, especially when it comes to affordability,” said Tina Barna, executive director for the agency’s Tahoe branch. “Some parents don’t know what to ask because they are new to this. It’s different than talking business. It involves emotions. It’s a little bit more charged.”

Jennifer plans to leave the profession when her youngest, 6-month-old Kirby, is enrolled in kindergarten. She enjoys the fact that the kids are learning every day and she can update the parents on their progress.

“We’re singing, reading and working on our manners,” she said. “I like offering a quality service for people. Everyone wants the best for their kids but sometimes parents are stuck with what they can afford.”


Joan Skelly didn’t want to give up her communications position at Harrah’s when she gave birth to Owen, her 4-month-old boy. She and her husband, Bryan, prepared themselves for the worst. There were a handful of places in Tahoe that had infant care with a limited number of slots. It wasn’t until a friend informed them a spot was open at Tahoe Tots in their Incline Village neighborhood that the couple breathed a sigh of relief.

“It was the most traumatic thing to go through,” said Joan. “We literally begged for infant care. We found that there just isn’t enough (infant care) in Tahoe.”

According to the child care report, 3 percent of all licensed providers in El Dorado County accept infants. In private households, less than half of the kids can be infants because of the great time commitment a provider must give a baby.

At Tiny Tykes of Tahoe on Tamarack Avenue, owner David Jaurequi reports that over a six-month period, he received an average of 20 calls a week from parents who had children under the age of 2.

Joan’s case is not unusual. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of children 5 or younger in El Dorado live in households where both parents or the single mother works full-time. There is also a large segment who say they would work more hours at their job if child care wasn’t so expensive.

“I’m surprised how many of our friends gave up their job for their family,” Joan said. “My husband and I couldn’t quit. We wouldn’t have been able to afford the type of care we have now.”

Joan thinks the $512 a month she pays for Owen’s care is worth it. She said since he is one of the few infants at Tahoe Tots, Owen is watched with an intent eye and she added the staff is always excited to see him. But Joan still misses him.

“I’m afraid I’ll miss one of those milestones like walking or talking,” she said. “You want to do so much for your child but striking a balance in your life is hard.

“When I come home, there is nothing else that I want to do but spend time with him.”

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