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Bittinger: The Button

When I had my first child thirty seven years ago, I went looking for a day care provider. Eventually I found clean, safe, pleasant toddler care, but first I encountered a great deal that was troubling and makeshift. One house was so dirty I could hardly wait to drive away. In another, an enterprising care giver had rigged a carriage with a bottle suspended from a wire to feed infants in her care. It was a clever arrangement, but scary. And almost four decades later, good child care is still hard to find.

This spring, a group of children was playing in the back yard of an improvised day care center in the Upper Valley town of Enfield, New Hampshire, when a coat button of four-year-old Willa Clark became snagged on a lean-to made up of branches. Other children watched as the toddler struggled to free herself but eventually suffocated and died. The day care provider was in the house with another child. The day after the incident, the center was closed down. I have a three year old grandchild myself, so this story troubled me deeply and I was shocked to realize that day care standards and availability are still such troubling issues.

But just last year, Johnathan Cohn wrote an article for The New Republic in which he concluded that day care today is “barely regulated and is sometimes unsafe, a system that is difficult for many working parents to afford, yet offers many of its workers very low pay.” My local newspaper, The Valley News, examined licensed day care centers in 2006 and found that 20 percent had been cited for violations in the previous year.

Yet, we need day care. Today, around 40 percent of children under five spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent. In so many households, both parents must work to provide for their families.

Thankfully, there are some promising initiatives. In Vermont, day care providers with 12 or fewer children may now form a union to bargain state subsidies collectively and there’s new funding to develop a statewide pre-kindergarten in public schools. All of this is moving us in the right direction, but affordable child care is still hard to find, and many parents have no other option than unlicensed child care.

Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner for child development at the Vermont Department of Children and Families says, “It’s a big market. It’s a big black market.”

Early childhood is a time of both vulnerability and opportunity. Many studies have shown that brain development is most rapid in the early years of life. It’s a time when the quality of stimulation, support and nurturing is especially important, so as a society, we need to do a better job of providing the services necessary to protect and provide for the youngest among us.

Cyndy Bittinger is a writer and historian, who teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Her latest book is, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History."
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