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.

We Never Close

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.

"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."

The Children's Courtyard even opened up the center to the corporate community, heavily marketing the program to the Alliance Corridor, American Airlines and the Fort Worth police and fire departments. But after a year, the center closed its doors at midnight and later cut back to traditional day-care hours, closing at 6:30 p.m. Although the center had the potential to sleep 190, at no time did more than 10 children spend the night. In addition to the high cost of night care, which is always a problem, "parents told us it was just too disruptive to the family unit to drag their children out at 7 at night," Anderson says. "They wanted to find care close to home--at a neighbor's house or grandma's house--not at the work site."

Les Wulf, the president and CEO of Children's Choice Learning Centers, believes "for every business, there is a formula," which, in the case of 24-hour child care, he possesses. He hopes to bring the remarkable success he has earned from his child-care ventures in the Las Vegas and Kansas City gaming industries to this area when he opens the doors to his center at Medical City Hospital. "The centers that have failed at nontraditional care are generally mom-and-pop day care that decide to stay open," he says. "Our centers are built for nontraditional care...Parents feel very comfortable leaving their children with us."

Wulf does things in a big way--big money, big space, big splash. His Medical City facility will be 21,000 square feet and is licensed to care for 330 children at a time. The hospital is deeply committed to the project, providing the land (adjoining Forest Lane) for the center and reserving 250 child-care spaces for the next 35 years. Wulf takes no walk-in traffic, but rather intends to build on his Medical City base by contracting with nearby corporations, who will guarantee that a minimum number of their employees' children will attend morning, afternoon or night. Because of what he perceives as the trend toward nontraditional care--in medical facilities, municipalities, light manufacturing--Wulf has plans to open four more centers locally within the next 20 months and says, "We are rolling this thing out nationally and could easily see 150 centers in the next six to seven years."

There are those who doubt his rosy forecast. "The gaming industry is a whole different culture than what we have here," Anderson says. "I still believe this is only a trend in the minds of parents who are not using the care."


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