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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Caregiver Martha Hernandez plays with Aria Mecham at the Family Support Center in Midvale on Friday, July 26, 2013. Two recent cases of women leaving toddlers at home has raised the need for awareness for emergency and regular child care assistance.

MIDVALE — At the three crisis nurseries operated by the Family Support Center, no one day is like another.

Sometimes stressed-out parents just need a couple of hours to pull themselves together. Or a single father en route to a job interview has had a babysitter cancel at the last minute.

And then there was the telephone call from a mother who told executive director Bonnie Peters, “ ‘I’m going to go out tonight and I’m going to get stoned. I’d like to bring my kids to the crisis nursery because I’m going to go out.’ ’’

Peters, who is a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother of six, agreed to care for the children — not to enable the mother — but to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children.

“The best interests of the child are paramount,” Peters said.

It's a guiding principle of the Family Support Center, which operates free crisis nurseries and provides structured, developmentally appropriate child care programs at its locations in Sugar House, West Valley City and Midvale.

Peters said she wants the community to be aware of crisis child care resources, particularly after recent news reports about two Salt Lake County women facing felony neglect charges after leaving their toddler-age children unattended while they went to work.

While there have been a number of high-profile incidents of child abandonment this summer, (six allegations statewide January through June) the data does not suggest an uptick in these cases, child welfare officials say.

Kids home alone

Reporting of these allegations tends to be higher in the summer months when children are home from school and child care programs with schedules that coincide with school schedules, said Nate Acree, a licensed clinical social worker and family reservation therapist for the state Division of Child and Family Services.

The cases that rise to the level of criminal charges are the most egregious, with parents leaving young children alone for several hours, leaving them food and confined to certain rooms of a house or apartment. Some of the cases involve abuse of the children or drug abuse and untreated mental illness on the part of parents.

Most of the abandonment allegations investigated by that DCFS involve a lack of communication between parents or caregivers — one thinking the other is watching the children, Acree said.

"With a lot of the younger ones, they're not parents we've even had a case with. They just take their eyes off a kid and bam, they're gone. They get out the door and they haven't even noticed," he said.

In those cases, DCFS workers work with parents to instruct them about proper supervision of children and help connect them to state and community resources. Most of the time, no additional contact is required.

Peters said recent news reports were troubling, particularly so because one of the families lived within a half-mile of a Family Support Center crisis nursery.

While Peters said she understand that parents can occasionally feel overwhelmed with the competing demands of family and work, leaving a helpless child alone is not acceptable.

"Please don't. We can help. We have three crisis nurseries that can help," she said. "We will always find a way to help, somehow, somewhere."

Crisis centers

On Friday morning, there were four children in the crisis nursery in Midvale, which cares for children newborn through age 11.

Next door, the center operates a traditional child care facility, which offers its Kid Start Day Care curriculum.

While the traditional child care center buzzes with children's voices and activity of 23 children, the crisis nursery is the picture of calm.

"This is just love, love and attention. All kids crave attention," said crisis nursery director Susie McGray.

Parents who bring children to the crisis nursery need to call in advance and are expected to fill out paperwork and present photo ID.

Sometimes parents need someone to watch their children for a few hours while they go to a job interview or a doctor's appointment. Sometimes they need full-time child care because their babysitter is ill or has quit without notice. Some parents are working through personal problems and need a few hours to pull themselves together.

The Family Support Center's crisis nursery in West Valley City provides round-the-clock coverage. The Midvale center is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the Sugar House location is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The crisis nurseries can provide up to seven days of child care but it is not intended as a long-term solution. Peters said Family Support Center employees can help parents arrange care at one of its child care centers or other licensed providers.

As a mother herself, McGray said she understand the importance of providing a service to parents who are overwhelmed or need a few hours help to allow them to go to a job interview or medical appointment.

While workers at the crisis nursery never know the full impact of the care they provide, some parents come back later once their lives has stabilized and their children are thriving simply to say thank you, she said.

"I had one little boy tell me 'I remember you. You were the one who played cars with me,' " McGray said.

"He remembered. Does it get any better than that?" she said.

Help is available

Lynette Rasmussen of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the state Office of Child Care can help parents find child care providers near their homes or places of work and help low-income working parents or those undergoing job training to apply for stipends that help offset the cost of care.

“There is help available if a mother knows about it,” Rasmussen said.

Depending on household incomes, the stipends pay 60-75 percent of the market rate for child care services. Any low-income working parent who is authorized to work in the United State is eligible to apply for the child care assistance funds.

Rasmussen said news reports about parents leaving children unattended are "heart breaking."

"What would drive a mother to leave their child unattended?" she said.

Acree said some parents don't know about community resources. Some parents don't reach out to others because of substance abuse or mental illness. If a child has been abused or neglected, parents may not want their children in settings in which teachers or caregivers are required by law to report allegations to police.

Still others simply have burned out other family members once willing to help. "That's what I see more of. There will be a family that has utilized their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters to the point they're just sick of it and there's bad blood," Acree said.

Even then, Rasmussen said, a little creative problem solving can go a long way to ensure children are safe. Some people in neighborhoods and church communities are happy to lend a hand. Some parents arrange to care for one another's children while one parent works or runs errands.

Adela Brasso, who runs the Kid Start Day Care at the Family Support Center's Midvale location, said she knows what it's like to be a single parent who needs safe, quality child care.

"I really think we have to support people when they need it. This is a nice place and a safe place," she said.

Peters said the future of society depends on people to care and nurture children.

"It's always good if children can be with their own parents. The reality with life is, that doesn't happen all that much any more."

In those cases, children and working parents — need child care that is safe, reliable and encourages the emotional, physical and cognitive wellbeing of children.

"If they're not learning, they're not growing," Peters said.