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Drawing: via Simply Psychology

Benita Dishner lives in a historic neighborhood in rural Hazard, Kentucky, and keeps her two grandchildren during the day while their parents work.

Her grandchildren are among the 2.3 million rural children nationwide who are cared for either by relatives or in another informal, home care setting. For now, Benita limits her work to her family, occasionally caring for a third child, but for more than 25 years, she was revered in Hazard as a near-institution in child care.

Benita’s 25 years of experience track the changes that have taken place in rural child care and also evidence rural parents’ preference for home care over free-standing day care centers.

“Benita Dishner has cared for half of Hazard from her home on Baker Hill,” said the Rev. Ellen Peach, who pastors the First Presbyterian Church near Mrs. Dishner’s home. “NeeNee’s kids are all over this state and beyond–and doing very well for the most part. The quality of the day care that she was able to provide was, according to reports, second-to-none. And this from a home-based operation.”

Benita moved to Hazard in 1978 with her mine-inspector husband. In 1980, a minister’s wife asked if Benita would keep her child.

“From there, it just grew,” Dishner said. “We needed the income as well as the people needed the help.” In time Benita’s home was filled with as many as 15 children, from infants to school-aged children, the group built up over years of referrals from parents who loved how Benita cared for their kids.

She limited television, required those in school to do their homework, and had the preschoolers learning their ABCs and spelling their names. She insisted on proper table manners, and “yes ma’am,” “no ma’am.”

This thriving business stopped cold when Mrs. Dishner was cited by state officials for keeping too many children and for lacking state certification.

“It was a Wednesday afternoon. The state came in and told me I had to be rid of all except three of the children,” she said. “It was very traumatic and I cried for days. How do you choose? We drew the three names out of a hat.” Benita said that she hadn’t intentionally broken state regulations; she wasn’t aware she needed to be certified. After the inspection, she applied for and received state certification, and was eventually allowed to keep as many as six children in her home.

Benita’s situation underscores the dilemma of rural child care. While federal and state policies have been setting benchmarks and moving toward more certification requirements for day-care workers, most people in Kentucky — particularly in rural communities — still prefer home-based care with a relative or close acquaintance.

The transition to a child care system staffed by credentialed care-givers received a boost in 1996 when Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, commonly known as welfare reform. The program replaced an entitlement to cash assistance with incentives to encourage low-income mothers to improve their education and job skills.

Many low-income women could not afford to work because they could not afford day care, so the 1996 welfare reform law also created the Child Care and Development Fund. The fund subsidizes child care for low-income parents; it also gives child care providers incentives to train staff and eventually to offer better wages.

Ten years following the enactment of the law, the median annual earnings of wage-and-salary child care workers were $17,630 (May 2006), according to the 2008-09 Occupational Outlook Statistics published by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s less than half the median annual income for all occupations, estimated at $40,690.

Efforts to certify child care workers have also been spotty. Kentucky implemented a program called Stars for Kids Now, which rewards child care centers that meet benchmarks of quality. Most participants have been from day care centers; only a fraction of home day care providers have taken part. In 2006, more than 600 licensed facilities and more than 150 private homes participated in Stars, serving more than 40,000 children, according to a 2007 policy brief by the Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center. But a national licensing study showed that there were 2,256 licensed child care facilities and nearly 1029 family child care homes in Kentucky. Though home day care operations account for about half of the facilities in Kentucky, only a fifth of the Stars participants were home caregivers.

Part of the reason for low participation is the number of exemptions. Currently all states exempt the care of children by close relatives from licensing requirements when all the children in care are related to the provider. All states also exempt care provided within the child’s own home.

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Drawing: via Ready,Set Learn Preschool

A 2006 longitudinal study at Mississippi State University’s Early Childhood Institute showed that rural children are less likely than their urban counterparts to be in center-based care during their pre-kindergarten year. One researcher questioned whether this difference was due to a preference for family and close-friend care or a lack of day care centers in rural communities.

Jenny Williams, an English professor at Hazard Community College, chose Michael Deaton, a woman Jenny has known all her life and who lives and cares for children in the neighborhood where Jenny grew up. There are two day care centers in Hazard, but Jenny decided against taking her daughter, Lily, to either of them.

“I never seriously considered Starland or New Beginnings because I wanted Lily to be in an ‘at-home’ setting. Although I think both New Beginnings and Starland are good, safe, sound places, I also think they are necessarily institutional. At Michael’s, I feel like Lily is pretty much doing the same things she would do at home, albeit with more kids.”

New Beginnings is located in a new, large building where children are fed meals that meet USDA nutritional requirements and care givers are trained in CPR and first aid. Children go on field trips and hear speakers. The local community college provides on-site training in child care. The Mississippi study found evidence that centers such as these compensate for what is often a lacking in private homes: stimulating learning and play materials and a focus on education.

Jenny admits that home care isn’t perfect. Sometimes Michael lets the babies “cry it out” more than she would like. Sometimes she feels there is too much time watching TV. Also, if Michael is sick, it’s a scramble to find back-up sitters, something that isn’t such an issue at a day care center.

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Painting: via 2petit

Overall, Jenny said she feels blessed with her day care arrangement.

“When I go to pick Lily up, she runs over to me and climbs in my lap and we nurse, sometimes for as long as 20 minutes,” Jenny said.
“While she nurses, I visit with Michael and the other babies. I get very attached to the other kids, who are usually the kids of people I know, often very well. I know that Michael loves Lily and that she cares about me and my family, just as I care about her and her family, because we’ve all been friends for so very long. She’s more than just a day care provider. She’s my friend, part of my close community. I know that my daughter is safe and loved in her care. I just don’t think I’d feel that way at a bigger center.”

Benita, the retired child care worker, said she understands the rationale for certifying care givers.

“I may have learned a thing or two by taking continuing education classes,” she said. “But I had to pay to be certified. I had to have a criminal background check. I had to pay for an annual checkup. I test positive for TB, but I don’t have it, but I still had to have a chest x-ray every year. Everybody in Hazard knew me and I can assure you, they were not concerned about me, my health, or the care I provided for their children.”

Jenny, a life-long resident of Hazard, agreed.

“I think Benita’s right, in many ways, about community and reputation alleviating the need for training and certification. The trainings and paperwork that Michael has to do seem fairly ridiculous and do nothing to make me feel safer or happier about leaving Lily there. And I would never leave her with someone I didn’t know in a private home no matter how many certificates and background checks the provider could brandish.”

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