Emmie Rutledge stepped into the day-care center, one of more than 20 facilities on her list, and was confronted by a noisy 3-year-old boy who was "roaming around, sniffling and crying."

The center's owner tried to hush him, calling to other staff members, "Does anyone know his name?"Someone finally did. The unhappy child had been attending the center for more than three months.

"Right then, realizing that after three months this woman didn't even know the child's name," Rutledge said, "I turned around and walked straight back out the door. She wasn't going to care for my baby."

Rutledge was on one of many trips to day-care centers, looking for one in which she would feel comfortable leaving her soon-to-be-born baby when she returned to work. Her search, which began when she was five months pregnant, lasted longer than the entire pregnancy. Marcus was born early, but the "perfect day-care center" eluded her until he was almost 4 months old.

"It's no surprise that child care is emerging as one of the hottest political and social issues in the nation. It impacts a lot of people," said Mary Lee Allen of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

"No less than three major pieces of legislation were introduced during the last session of Congress (there were more than 100 `minor' bills), and while none of them made it all the way through, it's only a matter of time before the country realizes it's an issue to be faced squarely - and soon."

Selecting day care is a complicated, frustrating process. Although many quality day-care situations exist, from in-home nannies to family settings, large centers, relatives' homes, learning centers and preschools, they can be hard to find.

Experts agree that there are not enough qualified providers to meet the need _ particularly in Utah, with a high birth rate and low ratio of working adults in proportion to children.

Few providers will care for sick children. There's a shortage of infant care. And the gap is wide between the number of children who need after-school care and the programs offered.

"In short, day care is in a state of crisis," said Kris Hale of the Child Care Connection. "If you look at the number of children in the state and the programs available, they just don't match up."

What do the numbers actually say?

According to the Division of Family Services, approximately 253,000 Utah children under age 13 need child care while their parents work. About 29,000 of those children are in licensed facilities.

No one knows exactly where the others are. But logic says some are being cared for by relatives, some by private care-givers who take in one or two children, some in church and school programs (which are not counted in the state's figures). A few children go to libraries after school until their parents pick them up. But too often, particularly in low-income families, children are caring for their even younger siblings during the hours between the end of a child's school day and a parent's work day.

"Not all of this care is bad," said Mary Olsen, who specializes in school-age and employer-sponsored child care for the Division of Family Services. "Many, many children are being cared for very well by relatives, friends and other programs that don't fall under licensing regulations.

"But we are concerned about programs that don't provide quality care. Studies show that children who receive quality care do better in life generally: They are more apt to get an education and earn better livings, they are less apt to be involved in crime, they have higher self-esteem. You cannot separate caring and education or their importance in a child's life."

Unfortunately, she said, child care has never been legitimized as something to pay for with public funds. And funding is a major issue with child-care providers, parents and advocates.

"One of the major issues is lack of resources," Olsen said. "Most parents cannot afford to pay large sums for child care, but the average provider is seriously underpaid. For families with an income under $20,000, cost is the first consideration in choosing child care. Families with higher incomes are more concerned with quality."

Providers from several of the area's most successful child-care centers told lawmakers at an interim committee meeting this summer that they can afford to pay staff members only minimum wage, and consequently turnover is high.

Wages go up a little with experience, but Olsen said a survey of child-care centers in Utah this year indicates that directors earn an average of $12,175 a year, teachers average $4.08 an hour and teachers' aides $3.65 an hour.

Of the 46 percent of care-givers who quit their jobs last year, most cited low pay as the reason.

"It's insane," said Cheryl Wright of the Utah Board of Family Services Child Care Advisory Council. "We require more training for those who cut our hair, handle our food and give massages than for those who care for our children. And we pay them very little."

Utah licenses day-care facilities - and grants exemptions. In-home centers that care for fewer than four children are exempt, as are facilities that keep children for less than four hours. Relatives can care for a child without a license, and so can programs operated by the Board of Education or parochial organizations.

There are different types of licensed day-care facilities: family home settings (with up to six children, including not more than two infants), family group settings (up to 12 children if there are at least two care-givers) and centers (which care for 13 or more children in a commercial setting).

The state sets the adult-child ratios. Centers, for example, must have one adult for every four children under 2 years old. Other ratios are 1:7 for 3-year-olds, 1:15 for 4- and 5-year-olds, 1:20 for 6-year-olds and 1:25 for children from 7 to 14.

Licensed facilities are inspected at least once a year by staffers from Social Services' licensing office. They look for safety, cleanliness and adherence to several regulations and examine immunization records, curriculum, progress reports, staff training and whether providers are on the child-abuse register.

For all that, inspections are not "in-depth," and state officials are quick to point out that licensing does not assure quality care. "This is not a seal of approval," said Pat Kreher, director of licensing. "It just means that (the center) meets certain specific requirements."

If the center has contracts with the Department of Social Services, it must be licensed. The department subsidizes care for about 7,500 children whose very-low-income single parents are participating in self-sufficiency efforts. The state pays providers $6.65 a day for children over 2 years and $7.95 for those younger. It also limits day-care slots to three children per eligible family, so parents who have four or more children must make other arrangements - or leave some of the children to care for themselves.

Providers generally agree that child care costs significantly more than what the state pays, so other parents must pay more to help subsidize state placements.

Clark Fowers, a day-care provider, said the average cost to the public is $15 a day for infants, about $13 for 2-year-olds and $10.35 for children over 4.

One component missing from licensing requirements, said Judy Kasten, child-care specialist for Utah Issues, is any standard for training or education.

"Some of the people we trust with our children's care are too poorly educated to get a better-paying job. But they can stay home and take care of our children," she lamented.

Many day-care centers have established their own guidelines for training and encourage staff members to pursue education. The Bell Canyon Learning Center, for instance, hires only teachers with degrees in child-care-related fields.

"I operate a day-care facility," Pat Vasick told members of the Legislature last August. "And it's a good one. But I cannot afford to send my employees for schooling to enhance their skills. I sometimes can't afford to keep them at all. And I can't pay them enough so that they can get more ongoing training."

Parents ultimately determine what kind of care children get, Hale said.

"By far the majority of child care is unregulated and much of it is probably illegal. People are doing a disservice by supporting poor situations selected simply because they're cheap. Any parent choosing substandard care could have serious problems," she said.

Businesses are becoming more involved in filling Utah's child-care needs. Sixteen corporations have opened accounts with the Child Care Connection so that employees can get free help finding child care.

A growing list of employers are offering on-site child care, usually paid for by parents on a sliding-fee schedule. Some businesses offer options like flex time and job sharing. Others let employees use personal sick leave when a child is ill.

"Cafeteria" benefits in a few businesses allow employees to opt for child care instead of another benefit. (Olsen pointed out that health care is about the only benefit that even comes close to the cost of child care, so that option is probably not helpful unless one parent works for a company that provides health insurance and the other parent can get the child-care benefit.)

A relatively new option is the Dependent Care Reimbursement Account. The employee takes a "cut" in salary equal to his child-care costs, then is reimbursed for those costs. The employer saves 7.51 percent in Social Security on the deducted amount, and the employee doesn't have to pay taxes on it.

"All these options are good news," said Rosalind McGee, director of Utah Children. "But child care has a lot of problems. And I think solving them will involve a combination of legislation and hard work by parents, school officials, community groups and the public."