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Fault the lack of care

Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair, was found guilty this week of murdering her 8-month-old charge, Matthew Eappen, in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, the child's mother had already been convicted as an accessory.

Deborah Eappen has been the focus of significant public derision for trusting her child to a trained babysitter's care. She has been flooded with hate mail accusing her of contributing to the death of Matthew by working outside the home. The talk-radio set has abusively turned the tragedy into a cautionary tale for working mothers, suggesting that any woman, and particularly a woman with means, who chooses to leave her children in a stranger's care, is not just a "bad" mother but a criminally negligent one. Some radio callers have even suggested that Eappen, who worked three days a week as a ophthalmologist, got what she deserved.

These callers are missing one key fact: Babies and toddlers are at much greater risk of being killed or seriously injured by their parents and relatives than by a babysitter or day-care provider. As counterintuitive as it seems, statistically at least, children are safer when the caregiver is a stranger.

But that doesn't answer the angst evident in the Hobson's choice most working parents confront. Parents know, despite the statistics, that they would be the best caretakers of their children. Choosing to stay home, however, can be stultifying for those who have worked hard toward a fulfilling career, and for many it is not economically feasible. No guilt nor societal censure should accompany that difficult and deeply personal decision.

Callers to radio talk shows may be irrationally shrill and condemnatory _ faulting any woman who doesn't conform to their nostalgic fantasy of the 1950s American housewife _ but many parents, moms in particular, do struggle with the decision to leave their children with strangers during the day. The Eappen situation has caught the attention of the public not because Deborah Eappen is exotic, but because she's ordinary.

Currently 12.9-million children under 6 years old are in child care, including 45 percent of children under age 1. Every parent's worst nightmare is the one the Eappens are living through. They deserve our condolences and sympathy. This could happen to any family. After all, even stay-at-home moms occasionally leave children with babysitters.

The only defensible social criticism arising from the Eappens' tragedy should be directed toward our paltry provision of quality, affordable child care options. President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have called it a "silent crisis" and recently hosted a White House conference to draw attention to the dearth of safe, dependable and nurturing child care facilities and tenured professionals.

Working mothers like Deborah Eappen should not be guilt-tripped and second-guessed. The only good that can come from the Eappens' story is a qualitative and quantitative leap in child care services. Let that be little Matthew's legacy.