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One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical

Take my kids, please! | Quote

In Davisville Village and other upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, most working parents of two or more children are managing with the help of a nanny. For those of us who can’t afford or accommodate a nanny, there are daycares. When childcare experts assess a daycare system, they look at its accessibility (price), availability (number of spots) and quality. Toronto’s system—a contradiction in itself—fails on all counts.

The umbrella term “childcare” covers many kinds of arrangements, but the most fundamental distinction is between unregulated childcare—all private arrangements such as grannies, nannies and private home daycares—and regulated care licensed by the province under the purview of the provincial Day Nurseries Act. Within the regulated world, there’s a further subcategory of childcare centres that have purchase-of-service agreements with the city, which means they’re licensed to accept subsidized kids. Beyond that, there are the 52 daycares run by the city.

In Ontario, regulated childcare is available to 12 per cent of families. Given that approximately 80 per cent of Ontario mothers work, the vast majority of children spend their days in unregulated situations. These are not necessarily bad, but they are—as the term suggests—subject to no official oversight or quality control.

Unlicensed home daycares are popular in this city, and new ones are popping up like mushrooms in our most reproductive neighbourhoods. Most don’t need to advertise or have websites; a little sign and word of mouth do the trick. Given the huge demand, home daycare operators are sometimes tempted to take in more than their permitted capacity of five children. Once they do, they’re not only unregulated, but also illegal.

The public is only made aware of these places when something goes wrong. Sometimes things go horribly wrong—as in the case of 14-month-old Duy-An Ngyuen, who died as a result of injuries suffered in an unlicensed home daycare in Mississauga in 2011. (The owner, April Luckese, has been charged with failing to provide the necessities of life and criminal negligence causing death.) And sometimes things go minorly wrong, as in an infamous biting incident at a Riverdale home daycare in April 2007 that went unnoticed by staff and landed a toddler in hospital. In the investigation that followed, owner Gloria DeMelo was found to be caring for more than 25 children, five times the legal limit.

Parents find themselves in a royal pickle when their daycare is shut down overnight. They must also contend with a serious burden of shame and guilt. I spoke to several parents whose daycares were breaking the rules, all of whom requested anonymity, and their lines of defence were similar: we had no idea and/or we had no choice. One Riverdale mother’s scenario was typical: her nine-month-old baby had been on at least three daycare waiting lists since conception, and one month before the mother had to return to work, she still had no spot. Of course she was overjoyed to discover friendly Gloria around the corner, whose daycare seemed cheery, safe and, at $50 a day, moderately priced.

Not that anyone should assume a licensed daycare is by definition a good one. In August 2011, three toddlers at the Markham Village Childcare Centre wandered off the playground through an open gate and made their way across a parking lot to the neighbouring Shoppers Drug Mart. When store managers contacted the daycare, staff seemed not to have noticed the children’s absence. Video surveillance cameras showed three staff on the playground, one on a cellphone and the other two chatting with each other, as three of the 11 toddlers they were supposed to be super­vising sallied forth. Not only did that childcare have a licence, it had won the Markham Economist and Sun’s readers’ choice award for best daycare the previous year.

Studies have demonstrated time and again that parents are poor judges of the quality of daycare programs. Their top criteria—understandably—are location, price and scheduling compatibility. Few think to ask about staff turnover, salaries or professional development opportunities, factors that correlate closely with quality. A recent study that looked at 1,000 children at 100 childcare centres across Toronto revealed that parents stayed an average of 62 seconds when dropping their kids off in the morning. Most parents have little idea what goes on at their daycare centres.

Toronto’s daycare environment is a delicious cocktail for the private sector: a market where demand far exceeds supply, where most customers (parents) don’t know what they’re purchasing but want the very best of whatever it is and are willing to pay a lot for it. For-profit centres exploit these vulnerabilities, emphasizing curriculum, presenting themselves as safe homes away from home and wowing adults with amenities that make absolutely no difference to children. What three-year-old cares if the chair she’s sitting on is eight years old or brand new? If the muffins are made with all-purpose flour or Fairtrade spelt? One fast-growing commercial daycare chain in Toronto is Peekaboo. Its trademark is its Internet video link, which enables parents to watch their children in the centre throughout the day.

This isn’t to say that for-profit childcare is by definition a scam. There are some excellent private childcare centres in Toronto, a blessing to those who can afford them. But with the profit motive at play, there’s a temptation to cut corners, and the first corners to be cut are generally staff salaries.