To Save a Life

This week, Dr. Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis who studies gender inequality, asked what it would take for the United States to consider providing safe, affordable, quality childcare for its citizens. To underscore the urgency of the question, Collins mentioned a story about an unlicensed daycare provider in nearby Maplewood, a suburb of St. Louis known for its funky, artsy walkability, small shops, and a local microbrewery.

The case Collins referred to during her debut book launch of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, involved Laura Minnick, a Maplewood woman who has been charged with seven counts of endangering the welfare of children at her home daycare.

Of Minnick’s young charges, a three-month-old girl was found unresponsive with blue lips, “cool to the touch,” and “compression marks” on her face, according to news reports. The baby was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

In addition to the terrifying, potentially preventable death of this child, when first responders arrived at Minnick’s home in the 3600-block of Cambridge Avenue, they also found six other toddlers in Minnick’s care. Robert Patrick, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported on December 4, 2018, “They found [the first] child in a playpen with a blanket on top, with heavy shelving on top of the blanket to ‘keep the child from escaping’ [that last part in Minnick’s words].” A couple of other children were also in the living room.

Minnick allegedly only admitted to those identified children as being in her care. But, according to police reports, she then led authorities to a male toddler in a playpen inside a closet with hanging clothes and then a female toddler in the basement [again in a playpen with a blanket and shelving on top]. And then, Patrick wrote, as police were handcuffing Minnick, they heard a noise and found a male toddler in a closed, dark room, again with yet another playpen shuttered with a blanket, shelving, and crates on top.

I shudder to think what would have happened to that last small child had he not made a sound.

As the mother of an almost 2-year-old girl, hearing Collins discuss her research made me think about the hurdles my own family has had to jump through to find quality childcare. While I never imagined paying more for our daughter’s weekly care per year than what I paid for a year at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the mid-1990s, I know we are the privileged ones. My family is white, middle-class, and college-educated with dual professional incomes. Finding quality, affordable childcare without those boons becomes almost impossible for working-class and working-poor parents making much less, one of the primary reasons for the proliferation of unlicensed daycare providers.

For our family, the struggles in finding quality childcare began from hiring Luci’s first part-time nanny, who loved LCD Soundsystem, read our daughter Camus instead of Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, LaLaLa, and had constant challenges getting Luci to nap to finally landing a golden placement at an excellent early childhood center five minutes from our home when Luci was almost 16 months old. We gained admission to this early childhood center 19 months after I first put our name on the waiting list. At the time of touring childcare facilities, one director told me many parents put their names on waiting lists well before they began trying to conceive.

As we waited for a spot to open for our daughter, my husband and I were ships passing in the night. I taught full-time at a community college in the evenings, weekends, and online, and, during the day, I cared for our daughter while he worked. Postpartum, I haunted the night, teaching and grading with little sleep, taking pump breaks in the middle of a three-hour class, trying to relax so as not to hinder my milk’s let-down, and storing breast milk in little bottles in a discrete black bag when I returned to teach the class.

While my former employer did not offer paid family leave, I cobbled together almost five months of paid leave by having my baby right after spring break and stretching my salary out over twelve months instead of ten. Many teachers I know, from K-12 to higher education, try to schedule their children’s births right before summer.

I know my family is one of the lucky ones, and, yet, it does not feel that way. It feels like we skated by the skin of our teeth during one of the most important decisions of our child’s young life: who would care for her while we worked? I feel for parents who crunch the numbers and take the risk with an unlicensed care provider or must stay home, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. It is a decision far too many parents must make.

It also feels as if many American employers and citizens think that caring for a child is only the parents’ responsibility. As Collins said during her book launch, our children become the next teachers, legislators, workers, and leaders. How we care for them during their formative years is a collective civic responsibility.

Why are we the only industrialized nation without paid parental leave? Why do we not have universal pre-kindergarten programs? When will we enact legislation that allows all parents who work outside the home access to quality and affordable childcare?

The stakes are too high to do nothing. Days after Collins’ book talk, I cannot shake the thought of the baby girl who died in an unlicensed provider’s care. To save one life, as the Talmud puts it, saves an entire world. How many more children will be put in harm’s way until we come up with a better system?