Local Day Care Providers Band Together

by Jordan Moss

New Grassroots Network Stresses Training, Targets Bureaucracy

Evelyn Nieves hoped the day care provider’s license she received in September 1997 from the New York State Department of Health (DOH) was her ticket off welfare.

But for months the phone never rang, even though the Fordham Bedford mom had registered as a provider with the city’s BEGIN (Begin Employment Gain Independence Now) program, which technically is supposed to match mothers in the city’s welfare to work program with day care providers like Nieves. Eventually, Nieves, who was a home health aide until an accident sidelined her, had some success with a flier she posted all around her neighborhood, and now she cares for a couple of 2 year olds in her apartment on East 196th Street. She’s not completely off welfare yet – she still gets Medicaid and food stamps – but now she can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Many others aren’t so lucky.

When University’ Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP), a local non-profit, held a meeting to assess the needs and problems of family day care providers last April, an astounding 50 women showed up. Sitting in a circle in the chapel at Concourse House, virtually all of the providers vented the same complaint: despite being licensed and trained, they had no kids to care for.

Yet there’s a desperate need for regulated care all over the city, and according to Nora Feury, the chairperson of Community Board 7, the northwest Bronx is ground zero for the crisis. Recent studies by the city, Feury said, showed that Board 7 “had the highest need for child care services in the city.” The annual community district needs book for the Bronx prepared by the community boards and published by the City Planning Commission indicates that there is a whopping 99.7% unmet need for day care in Community Board 7. There are only three city funded day care centers in the board area, and the waiting lists at those can span years.

Still, the homes of registered providers sit empty.

“If we don’t do something quick, all these providers that are not on public assistance will end up on public assistance” said Anania Almonte, another Fordham Bedford mother. “There’s a supply and demand here. It just hasn’t met. There’s a gap.” To bridge that gap, Almonte, until recently a project director for Victims Services Family Day Care on Fordham Road, and a group of about 35 women have begun laying the groundwork for a day care providers network. The goals of the network are twofold. “[We’re] trying to fill a need in the neighborhood – quality day care – and at the same time move these women into [work] that might really be economically viable for them,” said Regina Kirk of UNHP, who has been helping the network get off the ground.

The network, Providers United (or Proveedoras Unidas as it is called by the many Latina participants), recently got a boost when it secured a grant from the Enterprise Foundation and hired Almonte as its coordinator. The network is being jointly administered by UNHP and Fordham Bedford Children’s Services (FBCS), another nonprofit, which has given the group office space at Refuge House, the former Our Lady of Refuge Church convent where FBCS runs a number of community programs. Now that they have space of their own, a toy and book lending library for providers is in the works.

UNHP executive director Jim Buckley said his housing agency got interested in the issue because of its connection to maintaining stable buildings and communities. “A lack of day care could force someone to move into a different neighborhood [and] create more of a transition in the buildings,” Buckley said. “If you have good day care, that’s another incentive to stay here.”

Buckley said the bottom up structure of Providers United, where the providers themselves are charting the organization’s course, is modeled on the type of community organizing efforts that have been so successful in reversing the decline in the area’s housing stock. “It’s interesting to see it played out on the day care provider’s side, where providers are driving the show,” he said.

Though Providers United eventually hopes to steer prospective clients to its members, thus far it has been paving the way for such referrals, focusing on training and making sure providers are ready for the challenge of caring for young children.

As Almonte sees it, getting licensed is just the beginning. “DOH is not going to guarantee that you’re providing good care. The only thing they do is that if somebody complains about a provider and you give a good reason … they will investigate.”

So the members of Providers United have invited experts to instruct them in infant CPR, asthma, and lead poisoning. And more experienced members of the network have volunteered to inspect their colleagues’ homes, to make sure they’re safe and child friendly.

Providers United participants balk at the term “babysitter” and stress the professionalism in providing day care services. “As providers, we have to get up in the morning, comb your hair, get dressed, put a little makeup on,” said Martha Smith, one of the more seasoned providers in the group. “If you went out to work every day you would have to do this. So I make it a practice to be that way . … Look like you’re ready for work.”

Nieves feels the same way. “I see myself as a professional,” she said, “because you have to take a lot of classes and training and you have to do a lot of bookkeeping and paperwork, and still be able to know how to teach a child.”

Smith and Nieves have created structured, educational environments for the children in their care. Naps and meals come at the same time every day, and lessons in reading and counting are regular fare, even for the littlest ones.

Parents treasure this kind of attention.

“My daughter is 3 years old and she knows how to write already,” said Margot Smith (no relation to Martha), a working mom who searched long and hard before a neighbor referred her to Martha Smith. Before that, the Norwood resident had a disastrous experience with a day care provider after her child complained of being hit and once came home with a burn on her finger.

Getting more children into the homes of competent providers is next on Providers United’s agenda. To do that, the group hopes to make headway in getting the city bureaucracy to act more in the interest of children. One place to start, Kirk said, is the BEGIN program, where advocates say caseworkers are providing welfare recipients with outdated lists of family day care providers, or encouraging them to pursue informal care with friends and family members, a cheaper option for the city but not necessarily a reliable or safe one, since the care is totally unregulated.

A 1997 study by Public Advocate Marks Green’s office reported that “of the approximately 15,000 children whose child care is currently being paid for by OES [Office of Employment Services, which oversees BEGIN) while their parents are engaged in work related activities, 12,000 are being cared for in unregulated child care.” While city officials have claimed that parents prefer informal care, the Green report charges that parents are often not informed of their options. “OES violates state law by frequently failing to provide parents with both oral and written information needed to make decisions about child care services,” the report stated.

Kirk said Providers United hopes to meet soon with BEGIN staff at the Bainbridge Avenue center near Fordham Road, and eventually with city officials to discuss reforms like updating the family day care providers list and getting providers paid on time.

Meanwhile, participants say the network is already paying off.

“The most important thing is the support and learning from each other,” Nieves said. “It makes me feel good knowing women who do the same thing so I can communicate with them.”

Ed. note: Providers United welcomes new providers to their regular meetings and trainings. For more information about these services, or if you need day care for your child, call 733-2557, ext. 21. Providers United is located at 2715 Bainbridge Ave., at the corner of East 196th Street.