Keeping Your Kids Safe

THE WOODWARD TRIAL evokes working parents' worst fear: that the person looking after their kids is cruel or incompetent. While physical abuse is rare, experts estimate thattwo thirds of child-care arrangements are substandard. And bad care has long-term consequences. Recent brain research shows thatearly experiences have a profound effect on a youngster's emotional, social and intellectual development.

Despite all the scary headlines about killer nannies,relatives--including fathers, siblings and grandparents-- watch more than 40 percent of preschoolers whose mothers work. Other parents pick from an array of options,depending on their finances, their location, their children's ages and the number of hours a day they need help. Here are some pros and cons of the most common situations:

Child-care centers: Institutional care is increasingly popular; about 30 percent of preschoolers with working mothers are in some kind of organized child-care facility. Prices vary widely, depending on the type of center. Staffers generally have some training, and many states impose health and safety standards. One sign of quality: certification from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Some experts also suggest dropping by unannounced every once in a while. Look for cheerful, clean play areas with safe, age-appropriate toys. Check out references and contact regulatory agencies to see if any complaints are on file. High turnover is a huge problem because pay is often dismally low. That makes it hard for children to develop warm relationships. Institutional care for babies is particularly controversial; one national study indicated that 40 percent of infant care is actually dangerous.

Family day care: In this type of care, children spend the day in the provider's home, often with several other children. About 17 percent of preschoolers whose mothers work are in family care. Many states require that these providers be licensed, which is some assurance of quality, but parents should still check references carefully. Family care is less expensive than nannies, but kids don't get as much individual attention. And many providers operate without licenses; one study found that the majority do not meet basic health and safety requirements.

Nannies and au pairs: Only about 5 percent of preschoolers are at home with babysitters. In-home caregivers are convenient for parents, but usually quite expensive--as much as $500 a week in New York. High prices don't always mean high quality. Experts advise checking references carefully since there are no license requirements. Ask detailed questions about styles of discipline, feeding and comforting.

Au pairs, usually European teenagers, are cheaper than adult nannies. They can become virtual members of the family for a year. But as foreigners, they generally have no American references; parents have to rely on the sponsoring agency's reputation, which they should check by contacting regulatory offices that keep track of complaints. Au pairs may have little experience caring for children. Also, they're young--often just out of high school--and may be more interested in having fun than watching kids.