I spent a day last week at the Florida Family Child Care Home Association's annual conference to learn more about the women who care for thousands of Florida's kids in their homes.
Even as they rushed in and out of workshops and lectures, I got an earful from some of the 400 attendees from around the state. Literacy. Licensing. Universal Pre-Kindergarten. Sign Language. Safety inspections. Spanish. Nutrition. Crafts. And of course, the kids, whom they adore.
I also heard several times this group's unofficial motto: "I am not a babysitter. I've never sat on a baby."
Since this association met the first time 10 years ago, they have worked hard to become better child care providers who do more than change diapers, sing lullabies and pass out animal crackers. Almost every person I spoke with said they wanted Florida counties to mandate licensing that requires more training and regular home inspections.
Take literacy. The providers who attended the conference learned ways to promote language skills in even the youngest of toddlers.
"When you read to a child, you don't just read the words. You ask them to tell you about the pictures. You ask them "what if' questions. If they use the incorrect grammar, you just repeat what they said properly," said Tammy Temer, a child care provider for 20 years from Oviedo near Orlando.
Take safety. "I didn't know that toothpaste is poisonous to a child," said Liliana Hererra, who learned this when her home was inspected. She works in Pasco County where licensing is optional. Herrera chose to be licensed. If not for the inspections, Herrera said she wouldn't have known to move her toothpaste out of the children's reach.
Beth Brown inspects child care homes in Sarasota County. She's seen providers who let kids handle pet snakes that may be safe in terms of biting, but their owners have no idea they carry salmonella. She has seen providers who cut their shrubs back in the wintertime, leaving sharp branches that could impale a child who falls off a nearby swing. And she is constantly on the lookout for poisonous plants. Most providers work hard to protect their children, but without inspectors they are going to miss things, she said.
"I tell them to go around their house for 30 minutes straight on their knees and really look at what the children can get into," Brown said.
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About 5,000 homes in 12 Florida counties, including Pinellas, are licensed and inspected regularly.
Some providers choose to get extra training and meet stringent accreditation guidelines. Florida has more than 275 nationally accredited homes.
"The more training they have directly correlates with higher quality care for kids," said Phyllis Kalifeh, president of the Children's Forum in Tallahassee. The Children's Forum is a nonprofit group that lobbies for children's issues.
Licensed homes are required to get 10 hours of annual training. Nonlicensed homes have mandatory training only when they start and that doesn't include CPR or first aid, said Mary Tingiris, former president of the Florida Family Child Care Home Association.
Kalifeh said statewide licensing is a difficult battle given the nonregulatory environment in Tallahassee. "Still, I'm optimistic with the onset of universal prekindergarten I hope family child care will be included in that," she said. "Then we will have to go to greater lengths to insure that wherever these children are is a quality environment and licensing is the first step."
Deborah Russo, director of child care services for the state Department of Children and Families, said to inspect the 2,900 child care homes that are registered with the state but are unlicensed would require 30 more full-time employees.
"I don't think it's because people don't realize it's a good idea," Russo said. "A lot has to do with requiring additional funding resources and manpower resources during this time of limited resources. The timing isn't right."
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Family child care advocates say that while every home may not qualify, many quality homes do a tremendous job of preparing children for school.
"A small group setting is better for any child," said Tingiris, who cared for children in her North Tampa home for 12 years. "They learn a lot more. They have more chances for emotional development and problem solving on their own. They will be going into that bigger group (in kindergarten) better prepared to relate to those other children and learn what they need to learn."
The variety of ages in a family child care home is also a benefit, Tingiris pointed out. Most homes have five children ranging from 6 weeks to 4 years old. Some have older children coming after school. Younger children are exposed to more complex play and advanced language while older kids have the opportunity to be leaders and assume responsibilities, Tingiris said.
"I've heard many kindergarten teachers say they love getting kids from family child care homes because they have such great social skills and language skills and they know how to get along," said Kathy Modigliani, a Massachusetts consultant who researches child care around the country and attended the conference.
"This program is all about choice so we're definitely in favor of family child care as part of the pre-K program as long as they meet designated standards consistent with quality curriculum," Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who led the effort to get voters to mandate universal prekindergarten in Florida, said in a telephone interview. "Some would argue the nontraditional settings (of a home) are better for much younger children than the typical classroom setting. While it may be appropriate, a smaller environment may actually be better."
So by the 2005 school year, the state may well be paying for 4-year-olds to attend family child care.
One parent at the conference thinks family child care is a great preparation for school as well as the best care for children who are years away from kindergarten.
"The ideal would be for me to be home with my kids. That would be the fantasy plan, but that is not an option," said Susan Greenberg, who has a 4-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son in a family child care home in Hollywood. "This is the next best thing. It's as close to being home with me and maybe better."
She referred to the training and experience her provider has and all the tips she gives Greenberg as she learns the ropes of parenting. "This (conference) to me is amazing. These women work 50- or 60-hour weeks and then they volunteer to come to things like this to learn even more."
_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmithverizon.net; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.