PARENTS, JOBS AND CHILDREN
Four-year-old Gina Schemionek repeatedly made it clear to her parents that she did not like going to the Calgary Day Care Centre every weekday. But her parents—Thomas and Mary, both warehouse supervisors—became seriously concerned about the child’s complaints last spring. That was when she began having nightmares and often returned home from day care with bruises on her chest and the back of her legs. Then the Schemioneks discovered, after talking to other parents, that other children enrolled at the centre also had voiced similar complaints. Last August about 20 enraged parents staged a protest outside the centre, some carrying signs that read, “Our children are living in terror.” A provincial investigation concluded last month that the staff had treated the children roughly and spoke to them in an “unbecoming” manner, but provincial officials did not take any action against the centre.
Messages: There are mixed messages from the case of Gina Schemionek. To some people, her experience was the result of parents entrusting their children to the care of strangers in order to pursue career goals. Others see it as a classic example of what happens when day care, which they consider to be an essential social benefit, is placed in the hands of profit-oriented operators. Whatever the perspective, the controversy about the centre in Calgary, and the continued demand for its services by the parents of 80 children, dramatically illustrates the scarcity of available day care spaces in Canada. Indeed, Health and Welfare Canada estimates that children in need of some form of day care now outnumber the spaces available for them in licensed centres by more than 10 to one.
As a result, the vast majority of the two million Canadian children whose parents work—or study 20 hours a week—receive what experts call “unlicensed care” from untrained babysitters. In addition to lengthy waits for a place in a good centre, fees can exceed those of the most exclusive private schools—about $6,000 per year. And a fifth of school-age children in Canada
are simply left alone to fend for themselves part of every day.
The demand for child care has been fuelled by sweeping social changes in the past 20 years, most notably the phenomenal increase in the number of women seeking paid employment. According to Statistics Canada’s 1984 re-
port, The Labour Force, the latest available on the subject, more than six out of 10 Canadian women with children under 16 work outside the home (page 52). And as that number increases, the chance of Canadian families finding adequate care for their children diminishes. Alan Pence, director of the University of Victoria’s School of Child Care, says that he cannot think of a social phenomenon
that has had such a dramatic impact on so many areas of life in Canada. “It is remarkable that we have not made fundamental changes in the way we try to support families,” he added.
Debate: Day care reform has been a subject for political debate in Canada since 1970, when a report issued by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women suggested that an extensive, publicly financed child care system would allow women to compete equally with men. Since then, such advocates for better care as Lynne Westlake, co-ordinator of the Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association of Ottawa, charge that the federal government has done little except commission further reports on the subject. And she noted that a federal Task Force on Child Care, chaired by retired civil servant Katie Cooke, last spring recommended the establishment of an extensive national child care system available to all Canadians. But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government has not acted on that suggestion. In12 stead, Health and Welö fare Minister Jake Epp o has appointed a seven3 member parliamentary committee to study the issue. That group’s report is due late this month and the Prime Minister has repeatedly said that “substantial advances” in child care are needed. Declared Mulroney to The Toronto Star. “A woman should be able to go to work and not be concerned as to whether her child is being properly cared for, either at home or in a facility. This has to be dealt with.” For women who have persistently lobbied for better day care services in
Canada, the Prime Minister’s statement simply reflects political reality— and all three major parties have acknowledged the need for reform. The New Democrats have long demanded a publicly financed system of universal day care. Liberal Leader John Turner has promised women more accessible day care in their communities and workplaces. “It is not a question of whether they will do anything,” declared University of Toronto research-
er Martha Friendly, a day care advocate. “They have to do it.” Indeed, Friendly described proposals to allow parents tax breaks for day care expenses as “halfhearted measures” compared to proposals for expanded government day care subsidies for all income levels and universal access.
Cling: But Canadians overall remain unconvinced about the merits of subsidized day care. A recent Gallup poll reported that 48 per cent of respondents said that two-income families should not receive any government subsidies for day care. And even if they embrace day care as an economic necessity, many Canadians still cling fondly to the ideal of the nuclear family that prevailed during their own youth, even though the traditional roles—with the man as breadwinner and the woman at home—now exist in only 16 per cent of families.
Still, there has been a marked change in attitude in Canada and the United States since 1972, when then-president Richard Nixon vetoed federal spending on child care because it risked “sovietizing the American family.” Now, for many working parents, two incomes are necessary to meet family expenses. But many parents still feel guilty about entrusting their children to strangers. Said Marika Panchuk, 36, a Winnipeg physiotherapy student who enrolled her infant daughter Alexandra in a centre at the age of four months: “It was just
horrendous to leave her and I was on the verge of tears all the time.” Influence: Panchuk and her husband, a radio producer, at least made their schedules easier by hiring a fulltime sitter, or nanny (page 56). Other parents with the means or influence can make similar arrangements. Mila Mulroney, for one, the Prime Minister’s wife and probably Canada’s most famous mother,
simply takes her youngest child, Nicholas, 14 months, to her office in the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill. There he sleeps in a crib donated by members of the local Yugoslav community. And some employers go to great lengths to accommodate the child care needs of valued employees. Four years ago Hildi Adelhelm, the owner of a company which conducts searches for legal documents, faced the loss of six employees who all happened to become pregnant at about the same time. Her solution: six cribs, a nanny and sliding glass doors, creating a day care centre in the offices of Alouette Search Services Ltd., the company she operates in New Westminster, B.C. Said Adelhelm, 34: “It has changed the office in the most delightful way.”
Guilt: Still, day care in the workplace is uncommon (page 54). Most Canadian mothers in need of day care have little choice in the arrangements they make. Said Gail VanDerWalde, a health care administrator and single mother whose two-year-old son, Maxime, attends a group day care centre in Montreal: “The guilt is there all right. But I’ve learned to bury it. What choice do I have? I have to work. The alternative is welfare. Would that make him better off?” But the observations of many day care centre workers would do little to allay feelings of
guilt. Declared Jean-François Laforte, a worker at Montreal’s Notre-Damede-Grace Play and Care Centre: “Many parents use day care as an escape. Some bring their child in at 8 a.m. and he’s still sitting here at 7:30 p.m., an hour and a half after we’re supposed to close. The kids don’t even know their parents.”
Alarmed: Some parents who have no
alternative to day care are alarmed by confusing and contradictory advice— including theories that it might harm children. Although there is little evidence to support such positions, the idea that a mother’s unremitting love is needed for the proper emotional development of her children remains deeply rooted in Western culture. In Britain, John Bowlby, a prominent psychologist, helped slow the spread of day care centres in the 1950s by warning against the purported dire effects of “maternal deprivation.” And in the United States, child development expert Burton White urges parents to avoid day care for children under three because of what he says is its potential for retarding development.
Ideology: But Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, one of the world’s leading child development experts and author of the influential 1984 book, The Nature of the Child, argues that such theories contain more ideology than fact. Indeed, Kagan notes that research into day care has failed to prove early theories about its possible harmful effects. He cites an influential study published in 1982 by Alison ClarkeStewart, a professor at the University of California at Irvine. After testing 150 twoto four-year-olds, she found that children who attended day care centres were more advanced so-
daily, intellectually and linguistically than their stay-at-home peers. Concluded ClarkeStewart: “What it means is that centre kids have educational and social opportunities that bring out a kind of competence we did not find in the home kids.” More recently, a 1984 survey of day care research supported that conclusion. The study, conducted by University of Alberta psychologist Fred Morrison, declared: “The overwhelming conclusion of a decade of psychological research can be summarized simply: children attending good-quality day care are no less securely attached or emotionally secure than are home-reared children.”
Unlicensed: The blank spot in that otherwise comforting picture concerns poor-quality day care— and most parents who need child care use unlicensed sitters, either in their own homes or in those of sitters. Those arrangements in a home can be comforting. But they are not subject even to minimal standards and busy parents often do not have time to assess the quality of care their children are receiving. Indeed, one woman who testified anonymously before the Cooke task force last year said: “I hired a student who had taken a child care course offered by the Red Cross. She would leave my daughter alone in the house while she went motorcycling with her friends.”
Penny Coates, Vancouver spokesman for the British Columbia Daycare Action Coalition, said: “It is just a guess how much poor-quality care is out there. One person told me she had had nine different people looking after her baby, and the child is only a year old. That is just not good enough in an infant’s developmental stages.”
Fatal: In some extreme cases a wrong choice in child care can be fatal—as an incident last year in an Ontario town chillingly demonstrated. Four young children and their babysitter died in a house fire in Bolton, 30 km northwest of Toronto. A coroner’s jury found that the five victims had died accidentally, but evidence presented at the inquest showed that shortly before the fire broke out, the babysitter, 49-year-old Joan Bulpit, had consumed 17 ounces of alcohol
along with drugs that had been prescribed for depression.
Still, a provincial licence and its promise of regular inspections is no guarantee of quality child care—either in group centres or private homes. Alberta provides relatively large provincial subsidies of almost $48 million a year. But even so, Christopher Bagley, chairman of the child welfare department at the University of Calgary, argues that the province “probably has some of Canada’s worst day care centres.” Added Bagley: “Their disorganized and neglectful programming almost certainly does harm to the children they contain.” And in Halifax, Kim Kienapple and his wife, Jean, have decided that their baby, due next month, will not attend a centre even
though both parents work and support day care in principle. Kienapple is the chairman of the child study department at Mount St. Vincent University, Nova Scotia’s only degree-granting program in early childhood education. But, he declared, “I have not seen any evidence of a quality infant day care in town.”
Despite the evident successes in communities across Canada, the negative assessments are distressingly familiar both to the opponents of day care and its advocates. “Lots of day care is not good,” said Friendly. “That happens to be true. But what do you do? Shut them down, or make them better?” Her question is rhetorical, but day care improvement is an
issue entangled in jurisdictional and ideological squabbles. For one thing, members of the special parliamentary committee will have to reconcile the need for better day care with the government’s drive to restrain federal spending. Still, in a reference to child care, Mulroney himself has stated, “Our battle against the deficit does not, I hope, blind us to some profound societal needs.” Indeed, Lucie Pépin, Liberal MP for Outremont and a member of the child care committee, has stated that the committee’s position will be “that the children of this country have the right to good child care centres and good child care givers, and that parents should have the choice of different kinds of services.”
Activists: Yet one of the most contentious issues facing policymakers will be the fate of commercial day care centres. Nearly 40 per cent of the licensed day care centres across Canada fall into that category, ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to 13 standardized centres operated by Mini Skool Ltd., a division of Montgomery, Ala.-based Kindercare Learning Centres Inc. Alberta has the highest concentration of commercial centres—70 per cent of the province’s nearly 600 centres. But many activists for improved day care reject that approach and argue instead for a governmentfunded child care system limited to public or nonprofit operations. And they say that because day care is highly labor intensive—75 to 90 per cent of a typical centre’s budget goes to meet payroll costs—many privately run centres can only turn a profit by using underpaid staff. Declared Cooke, whose report recommends government support: “With a social service such as child care there is no way you can make a profit except at the expense of something else.” And Cooke is especially critical of chains of centres that use a standardized approach, terming it “the McDonald hamburger approach” to child care. Said Cooke: “I don’t think that is the kind of care we want for our future citizens. Even McDonald’s doesn’t say it serves gourmet food.”
Regulations governing staff qualifications, the size of centres and staff/ child ratios vary widely from province to province. Although Ontario and Quebec have recently toughened those regulations, other provinces have not. In Alberta, the single requirement for day care workers is that they must be at least 18 years old. And in Nova Scotia, according to Mount St. Vincent’s Kienapple: “As far as the government is concerned, anyone could open a centre if they met health and safety guidelines. You could set the children
in front of a television set all day, and that would be sufficient.”
And even in relatively strictly regulated Ontario and Quebec, enforcement of those standards is sporadic. Said Barbara Kaiser, the director of Montreal’s Garderie (Day Care) Narnia in Montreal: “I have been operating for five years and I have been inspected twice. The last time the guy just went through the files to make sure there was a kid present for every file. When I asked him if he wanted to look around a bit, he said he wouldn’t have to, that as long as there weren’t any ashtrays or beer bottles strewn around we were probably a good centre.”
Certainly, there is widespread agreement that day care workers are underpaid, with most employees in licensed centres—98 per cent of whom are women—earning on average $14,212 a year except in Atlantic Canada, where the annual average is $9,750. Workers in commercial day care centres are particularly poorly paid, with many earning about 30 per cent less than their counterparts in nonprofit centres.
Ignored: Many of those deficiencies were documented in Cooke’s blueprint for improvement, which the federal government ignored. Using the school system as a model, Cooke urged Ottawa to provide funds for a provincially operated day care system open to all children and with no user charges. But that would have cost about $11 billion per year when fully operational, prompting many critics to reject it as a “Cadillac model of day care.” Cooke’s response: the cost would be significantly offset by the creation of jobs and economic activity. Said Cooke: “We didn’t recommend any damned Cadillac because we knew it couldn’t be built. We tried very hard to be practical.”
The Cooke committee also urged improvements in parental leave. Currently, working mothers are entitled by law to 17 weeks unpaid maternity leave from their jobs. During their time off they are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits worth 60 per cent of their usual wage—to a maximum of $276 per week—for 15 weeks. But the committee’s report, which enjoys widespread support from those seeking to improve the current system of child care, recommended gradual improvements culminating in a 26-week leave and benefits worth 95 per cent of wages. And the report suggested that fathers as well should be able to take some portion of the basic leave.
Subsidized: Such benefits are common in some other industrialized countries. France maintains a fully subsidized day care system that is used by
30 per cent of all children under three and almost all children aged three to six. And in Sweden, says U.S. child care expert Sheila Kamerman, “the supply is overwhelmingly inadequate, but the care is splendid.” In that country, despite an austerity program, the Social Democratic government has
pledged to expand the system to all children who need it.
Cooke noted in her report that concern for the welfare and development of children was the underlying philosophy of the French and Swedish systems. But she encountered opposition
to the creation of similar models in Canada, on the grounds that they would weaken traditional family ties. One opponent is St. Boniface Tory MP Leo Duguay, a member of the parliamentary committee on day care. Duguay told Maclean's that comprehensive federal backing for child care would signal that the government does not give any “consideration to staying home and doing it yourself or getting your aunt or uncle or grandmother or somebody to do it.” Duguay’s views are shared by many Canadians who maintain that child care should be an individual responsibility. Said Laura Henderson, 32, a homemaker from Aylmer, Que., who is raising four children at home: “Why should my husband pay higher taxes for another woman’s day care? If she makes a salary she can probably afford it.”
Still, even groups advocating traditional methods of child-raising agree that some broader federal child care initiative is necessary. Now, Ottawa spends about $225 million per year on child care—largely through an expense tax deduction of $2,000 per child and subsidies to low-income parents under the Canada Assistance Plan. The average cost of licensed care for a child is $3,500 per year. But the great majority of parents do not even get the tax benefit, because they leave their children with people who do not report their income and who refuse to give receipts. The situation is most difficult for middle-income parents who cannot afford quality care but do not qualify for government assistance. Indeed, a 1983 Ontario study found that 70 per cent of children in licensed care came from low-income families, five per cent from middle-income families and 20 per cent from families earning more than $35,000.
Defects: Those realities have fuelled the demand for government action on child care—and focused attention on the parliamentary committee charged with finding solutions to the national problem. Advocates say that they hope the committee’s recommendations next month will go beyond a call for tax credits for parents and address the problem of subsidies at all levels of family income. Cooke, for one, said that tax credits alone would be shortsighted, and added, “We always pay for our ignorance in the long run.” In this instance, it is the nation’s children who are paying for defects in a system which supposedly serves them.
LISA VAN DUSEN
-JOHN BARBER with MIRO CERNETIG in Vancouver, ASHLEY GEDDES in Calgary,
DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg, ANNE STEACY in Toronto, DAVID LORD in Ottawa, LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal, DEBORAH JONES in Halifax and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington