The little blond girl in the baseball cap and flowered shorts yelled, “I got it”—then laughed as the bubble she was chasing vanished at her touch. Beside her, a small boy smiled when he was told that his lime-green sunglasses were nice—but upside down. Both toddlers were playing near the fence in an outdoor play area at the Hydro-
Durham College Early Learning Centre in Ajax, a town of 45,000 about 25 km east of Toronto. As they talked with a stranger standing outside the fence, day care staff members busy with other children stopped to look over and assess the situation. Satisfied, they turned away again, and the two children resumed their play. On a bright June day, the moment passed quickly, but even such slight contact with a stranger was noticed and reviewed by the children’s supervisors. Said Mary Lynn WestMoynes, manager of child-care operations at Durham College, which runs the centre jointly with Ontario Hydro: “More parents are becoming alarmed because of things they hear. These are isolated incidents, but they are also a warning, and tell us that it is important to be vigilant with our procedures.”
While the threat of child abuse is a constant concern for many parents, the gravity and grotesque nature of the alleged abuses in Martensville, Sask., has brought the issue into painfully sharp focus. The site of the alleged crimes, an unlicensed babysitting centre in a private home, has also revived a nationwide debate over the availability of quality day care
and has led to demands for more governmentsupervised facilities. Already, the Saskatchewan government has announced plans to strengthen its Child Care Act, to appoint an independent child-care advocate and to hire additional child-protection workers.
Priority: But champions of day care say that much more needs to be done. Avril Pike, a mother of two, is co-leader of the Ottawa-based Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association and executive-director of a nonprofit parent-run day care centre in Edmonton. She says that the key to better child care is to give it the same priority that other social institutions receive. “If the province treated child care like schools and hospitals, and had regulations we all had to follow, we could guarantee higher quality child care,” she said. “It’s a sad thing that a tragedy
like Martensville has to happen to bring child care back to the forefront as a national issue.” Currently, 70 per cent of Canadian mothers with children under the age of 16 work outside the home. Many of them face similar problems with finding adequate and affordable day care. Up to 90 per cent of Canadian families who need child care use private unlicensed babysitters, including nannies. Only eight per cent of children are placed in licensed day care centres. Although many parents say that they are happy with their arrangements, they also acknowledge that their thoughts frequently turn to the safety of their children. Said Carolyn Broadhurst-deRosenroll, a teacher and Ottawa mother of two who uses private child care on a part-time basis: “Everyone has fears about whether their child is going to be neglected or abused.” She added: “With so many women going back to work now, I think there should be some sort of federal control. It couldn’t do any harm.”
In fact, many licensed day care centres, such as the Hydro-Durham facility, are a convincing
advertisement for government regulation. Located on the main floor of Ontario Hydro’s new Ajax headquarters, the centre has she large sunny rooms, including playrooms with slides and climbing structures, a kitchen large enough to accommodate cookie-baking sessions and an infant room. Classrooms are crammed with toys and displays that emphasize language skills, music and science. In one room, a rabbit rests on a window ledge not far from a hanging globe, a garden box filled with earth and stones and a tank of goldfish. All rooms, including bathrooms, can be viewed from behind a one-way mirror. If children are shy while in the bathroom, they are permitted to draw a blind. Centre director Judy Guay says that the 56 children registered at the centre are closely supervised by 13 staff members, all but one of whom have a community college diploma or university degree in early childhood education. Frequent head counts are a regular part of every day.
Still, Guay notes, some parents are
so fearful for their children’s safety that they will not allow kisses and hugs from the centre’s staff. And the only male staff member, Marc Battle, said that he sometimes has to deal with prejudice from parents who are uncomfortable with his presence. “One family came for a tour, saw me, and said, ‘No thanks,’ ” he added. Battle pointed out that most parents who get to know him are soon confident about his abilities, and even come to value the presence of a positive male role model. But in the current climate of fear surrounding the threat of sexual abuse, even qualified child-care workers are coming under harsh—and sometimes unfair— scrutiny.
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