November 11, 2005

Light Weekend Reading: "Fatalities And the Organization of Child Care"

Sheesh. What a way to end the day. After DT reader George used it to steer the "how to evaluate child care?" post back on topic, I decided to sit down with a just-published paper by CUNY sociologists Julia Wrigley and Joanna Dreby, "Fatalities and the Organization of Child Care in the United States, 1985-2003." It's a gripping and thoroughly buzz-killing piece of research, and the findings sound so immediately obvious, it's shocking that no one has studied this before.

The researchers compiled information from media, court, and government regulatory records going back 18 years to take the first systematic, nationwide look at deaths, injuries, and "near misses" in non-relative child care situations, which they break down into home-based care (yours and theirs) and center-based care. The result: more than 5,000 cases resulting in 1,362 deaths.

They found that fatalities in home-based care were 2-10x higher (depending on the type of incident) than in care centers. Death by violence was 100 times more common--5 vs 500--in home care. And the overwhelming type of violence involved shaking or striking the kid, usually in a fit of rage or frustration over the kid's crying. The next most common cause was drowning, both in pools and in small, unassuming sources: tubs, toilets, and buckets.

Unlike care center employees, in-home caregivers often work in isolation, without support or supervision, which can heighten stress as well as the likelihood for mistakes. The porous boundaries and unstructured nature of in-home care means other people are around the kids, too; a surprising number of cases involved caregivers' frustrated boyfriends.

In any case, the researchers' findings are significant not just for parents who use professional child care, but for full-timers as well. Isolation, stress, and depression can just as easily visit an at-home parent. And the one bright side--if you can call it that--of the paper is that, for all the risks children face in child care, it's still, on average, much safer than normal family life.

Fatalities and the Organization of Child Care in the United States, 1985-2003 [, pdf, thanks george]

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