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Day Care Distress For The Love Of Kids

For One Provider, It's A Busy 10-Hour Day To Provide Meals, Projects And Activities For Tots In Her Care, With Little Monetary Reward


14 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Newsday. All rights reserved.

By 9:30 a.m., Marta Caraballo's work day is in full swing.

Breakfast has been served. Lunch is cooking and the children are playing quietly in the playroom.

Sound like a millennium version of supermom? Not exactly.

Caraballo, 47, is a family day care provider in Brooklyn.

Her almost 10-hour work day of preparing food, changing diapers, toilet training and general care of three children begins at 8:30 when parents begin dropping off their kids.

"It's not your regular 9 to 5," she said with a chuckle. "It's not even regular."

Caraballo's ground-floor apartment in the two-family home she owns in Bushwick resembles a school classroom. The main room, in the back of the apartment, is decorated with an alphabet poster and arts and crafts projects created by the children. The room is filled with toys, both fun and educational.

Exit signs, in the familiar red-and-white lettering, clearly mark the doors at each end of the apartment.

"Because my backyard is connected to someone else's, I had to get permission from the woman who lives there that I can use her yard and go out through her house to get to the street," in case of an emergency, Caraballo said, holding house keys and a certified letter from the neighbor stating those particulars. It's just one of the strict rules her family day care business follows, and one of the things that helps it work as well as it does.

"We go through many things to make sure everything is safe," she said.

Indeed. Evacuation bags packed with blankets, paperwork and extra clothing are placed by doors, signs in every room warn of one child's allergy to penicillin, first-aid kits abound, and safety gates keep the children from entering the kitchen.

"The things we have here and are required to do, the parents don't even have to do," she said.

Keeping kids moving

In her charge are John, 2, Jay, 1, and Alaysha, 7 months. As the children arrive, Caraballo takes attendance and gives them breakfast.

"Organization is the word. And structure. You have to train children; they need structure," she said.

The morning is spent in activities such as playing with toys, snacktime, music and exercise.

"I don't believe in a lot of television," she said as she danced around the living room with Alaysha in her arms while John and Jay wiggled around her.

"Why put them in front of the TV when they can do that at home? This should almost be like school."

Nuestros Niños

Caraballo, a petite woman who moved to New York from Puerto Rico more than 20 years ago, said her days are long and the financial reward is not that great, but she is committed to children and sees this as an opportunity to honor that commitment and help her community.

She said she has averaged about three children at one time over the past two years.

"It would be better financially if I had five children, but it has been slow lately," said Caraballo, who said she earns about $17,000 a year from her day care operation, her only job.

For nine years, Caraballo has been a family day care provider affiliated with Nuestros Niños, a Brooklyn organization charged with overseeing Caraballo's and 95 other family day care facilities, to make sure they are up to standard. While all of the organization's homes are in Brooklyn, children from all over the city can be placed in them.

At these home-based providers, one adult may care for as many as five children, and only two of the children can be younger than 2.

The family-oriented centers are registered with the state Office of Children and Family Services and inspected by the city.

"Growth and development of children is what Nuestros Niños is centered to support," said Richard Oppenheimer, director of family day care for the non-profit organization.

"We refer them to the Department of Health for orientation and to get a state application. They can also come to us to complete the 30 hours of initial training that is required."

That training includes health and safety issues, child development, and learning how to identify child abuse, among other things.

Oppenheimer said 350 children are placed in Nuestro Niños' family day care centers in Brooklyn, and 600 children are on a waiting list.

The organization receives city and state funding. Money for food comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Caraballo and Oppenheimer said family day care providers are subject to surprise visits by social workers from the city Health Department and by educational aides who work for Nuestros Niños.

A busy afternoon

Back in Caraballo's house, dance time is over and it's time for lunch. On today's menu - planned a week in advance and given to parents - is chicken stew.

"It can get busy if I have two under 2," Caraballo said with a laugh as she fed Jay while simultaneously helping John with a drumstick. Alaysha had just had a bottle.

She uses the children's naptime that follows to clean up lunch dishes, make phone calls and prepare for the afternoon.

"I have heard a lot of bad stuff happening when parents leave their children at certain places," Caraballo said. "This is why I like working with Nuestros Niños. They make sure everything is in order, and if there are problems with the parents, they handle it. This way, it is not awkward."

After the children's 90-minute nap, Caraballo likes to take them outside for some fresh air if weather permits. But that's not the case on this day, so instead, the kids do an arts-and-crafts project, decorating a pre-cut construction-paper Christmas tree with glue and glitter.

By 3 o'clock, it is story time, followed by more playtime and a snack. Then, beginning about 4:30, it is pickup time.

Jasmine Quintana, 25, Alaysha's mother, said she is very pleased with her first experience with family day care.

"So far, she has been very good," Quintana, an assistant at a pharmacy, said of Caraballo. "She does exercises with her, and the No. 1 thing, she keeps her clean."

"I was just going to leave her with the baby-sitter who took care of my other child," Quintana said. " ... But I heard so much about Marta, and she is all the good things I heard."

Still, Quintana said, she made sure to lay to rest any doubts she had.

"I suggest in a family day care, you do research. Check the background of the provider," she said. "I had to make sure she [Caraballo] was going to be safe. I got her license number ...she was good and not a fake."

As the sun sets on her workday, Caraballo looks ahead to her evening - and to the next day.

"I love my job. I am so used to the routine," she said. "To be with them, you have to be disciplined, and I am."

Keys to finding quality day care

Searching for day care in New York City can be a daunting task. The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, on its Web site, offers tips to parents on where to look and what to look for. Here are a few of its suggestions:

If possible, give yourself at least three months to find a good program.

Call the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Day Care, for names of licensed centers. Always ask to be sure the center is licensed. Look for the posted license, and check how many children and what ages it covers.

Call the Administration for Children's Services to find out whether you are eligible for publicly funded day care services.

Talk to relatives, friends and neighbors. They might be able to recommend day care centers or tell you which to avoid, based on their experiences.

Always visit a center before enrolling your child, no matter how highly the center was recommended.

Visit more than one center so that you can compare the types and quality of services provided.

Talk to the director, look at the center and visit all classes, especially the ones your child will be in.

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