We Never Close

Or so say the proponents of 24-hour child care. The facts say otherwise.

It had all the makings of a trend. The new global economy--the one driven by the Internet, e-commerce and multinational corporations, the one that keeps three shifts running 24/7, that enables us to bank at 2 a.m., trade stock at 3 a.m. and get fit at 4 a.m.--seemed to need child care desperately. After all, the federal government was telling us that one in six workers were no longer nine-to-fivers, their presence instead required during night, evening or alternating shifts. And for single parents forced off the government dole by those who ended welfare as we know it, a graveyard shift at Wendy's or Wal-Mart might be the only option.

USA Today reported on the trend, as did The Wall Street Journal and a dozen newspapers across the country. City and state governments have encouraged day-care centers to extend their hours deep into the night. Night care seemed a natural for the gaming industry, the hotel industry, the hospital industry--and now with regular business going global, the need for 24-hour child-care centers seemed obvious.

Except to parents.

Children's Choice Learning Centers says it has developed the right formula to succeed at 24-hour child care when it opens at Medical City Hospital next year.
Children's Choice Learning Centers says it has developed the right formula to succeed at 24-hour child care when it opens at Medical City Hospital next year.

"When you speak with parents about offering shift care, they tell you, 'Thank goodness, it's finally here,'" says Neta Pierce, the regional program director for child-care licensing with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. "But when it opens up, they don't come."

The reasons why are as logistical as they are emotional, but that hasn't stopped child-care centers--both corporate and nonprofit--from attempting to offer the service. The Dallas Observer contacted a dozen Dallas-area centers that have touted 24-hour care; half of them have stopped offering that care, scaling back to more traditional day-care hours. American Airlines considered offering around-the-clock care at its corporate child-care facility, then decided against it after employee surveys indicated it just wouldn't be utilized. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., headquartered in Fort Worth, felt compelled to provide the same child-care service to its night-shifters as it did to its day workers, but then eliminated the program after one year.

These experiences, however, haven't stopped Dallas-based Children's Choice Learning Centers Inc.--the Cadillac of 24-hour child care--from entering the local market. Early next year, the company will open the first of five local centers at Medical City Hospital, a $4 million facility that will use the hospital community as its anchor client.

"Been there, done that," says Patty Maddox, director of child-care services for Presbyterian Hospital. "We started with 24-hour care for hospital staff in 1968 but gradually reduced it back over the years. It just wasn't feasible." The hospital now limits its evening child care to 8 p.m. and began referring those few employees interested in night care to the nearby Family Playschool center, but the center couldn't make evening care pay off either. "We tried it for three years," says owner Rita Brignole. "We needed about 20 children to break even but never averaged more than four or five. The demand just wasn't there."

"It's one thing to leave your infant or toddler in the hands of a quality child-care provider by day," says Dr. Jane Rowe, professor of childhood development at Brookhaven College. "But when night comes, many parents can't picture their 3-year-old sleeping in an institutional setting, a stranger reading them a story and tucking them into a cot next to other children they don't know."

Neta Pierce recalls the night care previously offered by Presbyterian Hospital. "They had a wonderful program, but they used hospital beds with high bars, and it looked more like an orphanage than a home...There is something that causes a parent to pause and feel guilty about leaving a child in a setting like that."

Perhaps that's why many parents often seek out "kith and kin" options for night care, choosing to leave their kids with grandma or auntie or the nice neighbor lady who remains unregulated by the state but comfortably close to home. Even licensed family or group homes seem more popular than traditional centers with some parents, who see them as a snuggly surrogate to their own families.

For nine years, 24 hours a day, Cynthia Banks has owned and operated Little Bo Peep in Fort Worth, where she cares for up to 12 children in her own home. She attributes the longevity of her licensed group home to the relaxed environment she offers families. "Parents become more comfortable if they can just come to your front door and see the real you," Banks says. "I am usually cooking with the kids, doing laundry, walking around in flip-flops. A home setting is just so much more personal than a day-care center."

For more than four years, Banks has cared for the two sons of Angie Conde, a night nurse at Kindred Hospital in Fort Worth. "I'm a single mom. I have no choice but to work," Conde says. "Her [Banks'] thing is that she treats your kids like they are part of her family. It's like a second home for my boys now."

Certainly Burlington Northern tried to reproduce that "home feel" when it opened a 24-hour center on its corporate campus in 1999. The atmosphere was casual; there was more one-on-one playtime than during the day, a lot of quiet time before bed. Burlington hired The Children's Courtyard, a reputable child-care organization that owns more than 55 centers in North Texas, to run the center. "Parents say they want night care, but our research told us that the utilization is just not there," says Joyce Anderson, vice president of education at Children's Courtyard. "But Burlington went out on a limb, agreeing to subsidize some of the costs for its employees."

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