A QUESTION OF CARE Day care centers are often ill-equipped or reluctant to meet the needs of disabled children, but help can be found.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first day care center kicked out Wayne Strupp's son because he wouldn't stop chipping paint from a doll house. In the second, a teacher threatened to quit, so severe was her frustration with the youngster.

The third? Well, 6-year-old James (along with his 4-year-old brother John) got the boot after eight weeks. The home day care provider "didn't know what she was getting into," the elder Strupp recalled.

"Last time, I went through 10 places to find one who would take them," said Strupp, whose sons are now in their fourth day care placement in two years. "For the first four weeks, I asked them every day, 'Is there anything wrong? Let me know early, maybe there's something we can do.' "

Such are the travails of parents of children with disabilities. James, and to a lesser extent, John, have been diagnosed with autism, a learning disorder that can cause anti-social behavior.

But autism didn't set the family apart from the thousands of other families with children who are deaf or mentally retarded or physically impaired. Finding quality child care can be a high hurdle for any parent, but when kids with disabilities are involved, the leap takes on Olympian proportions.

Take, for instance, Nicco Bigelow, who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. At age 3, the Randallstown youngster was prone to tantrums, pulling down wallpaper, throwing chairs and hitting his teacher.

"It's not been difficult finding day care. It was difficult keeping day care," said Nicole Greene, his mother. "He's always charming at first."

Or consider fellow Randallstown resident Natalie Snyder, who was kicked out of a day care center as a toddler because she was too loud. The 4-year-old is deaf and her failure to keep her voice down "bothered the day care provider," according to her mother.

"She suggested she could keep Natalie in her furnace room," said Donna Snyder. "Other day care providers weren't necessarily horrified at the thought of having her in their home but they weren't interested, either."

While the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act mandated that licensed day care centers enroll disabled kids -- unless the cost of accommodating them is excessive -- parents have found many centers are reluctant hosts.

Many are simply fearful of the unfamiliar. The average in-home provider may never have cared for a disabled child and doesn't know what resources or training may be needed. Or whether the demands of caring for a disabled youngster will mean shortchanging her other children.

Yet state officials estimate as many as 50,000 disabled children need child care -- roughly 5-10 percent of the more than a half-million Maryland children 12 years old or younger with working mothers.

No one really knows precisely what child care accommodations the parents of those children have made or whether they're satisfied with them.

But it isn't hard to find parents who are unhappy with their jury-rigged child care solutions. Some believe they had to settle for reluctant (and sometimes ill-equipped) providers because better opportunities weren't available.

In April, one Maryland child care referral service had to make 126 telephone calls to place disabled twins in North Baltimore. When a center refuses admission, parents are usually reluctant to force the issue: What parents want their child in the hands of someone they had to sue to take him?

Maryland officials will soon conduct a statewide survey to determine whether children with disabilities have adequate access to child care. The federally backed project, due to be performed in nine other states, is expected to take two years to complete.

"People can't give up. They can't accept a program that gives less than adequate care because they are frustrated," said Linda M. Heisner, head of the state Child Care Administration that is conducting the review. "They need to advocate for their children and ask for help."

In the case of James Strupp, Nicco Bigelow and Natalie Snyder, that help came from Project ACT, a 3-year-old program aimed at improving opportunities for disabled children in mainstream child care facilities.

Sponsored as a free service by the Epilepsy Association of Maryland, ACT (which stands for All Children Together) will provide day care centers with training, or in some cases the physical tools necessary to accommodate a disabled child.

After Owen Linville, who has spina bifida, graduated from a specialized child care program at the age of 3 last year, his parents searched to find a child care facility that could take him.

It wasn't easy. Under certain circumstances, the Randallstown toddler can stop breathing, and that would require someone to resuscitate him.

His parents found him a place at Play Keepers, a private day care center within a Baltimore County public school, but only because ACT brought in a Johns Hopkins Hospital medical team to provide training and lent an assistant to ease the transition.

"Had I not had Project ACT, I would have been much more frightened about assuming the responsibility for Owen," said Maxine Seidman, Play Keepers' executive director.

But the benefits of Owen's new placement are significant. Not only does he get a chance to meet and play with peers, but other children learn about his disability -- and perhaps learn to accept others with disabilities, too.

"Our goal is to get providers to not automatically shut down and say no," said Paula Boykin, director of family and children's service for the Epilepsy Association. "It's not so much that people are resistant as they are fearful."

Boykin and others say it's too easy to blame child care centers for not welcoming disabled children. The typical provider isn't HTC making a substantial salary, perhaps little more than minimum wage, and isn't anxious to take risks.

"Child care providers are among the most poorly paid people in society," said Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children. "To assume they have the wherewithal to provide services to kids with special needs is not logical."

Still, there are plenty of success stories and near-heroic day care providers. Mays Chapel Children's Center in Timonium was only too happy to accommodate Natalie Snyder. Nicole Greene found a part-time provider, and the proper medication, for her son. The Strupp brothers have been flourishing with an at-home provider in Columbia since February.

"It breaks my heart that some day care centers refuse kids," said Carolyn Carter, director of Mays Chapel. "We will take any child."

Wayne Strupp is just happy to see some consistency in his sons' lives. Now, he can focus on his latest challenge: battling his county's school system to get James enrolled in the school nearest his day care provider.

"I have to go out and find the resources for my kids and I have no skills at this at all," sighed Strupp.

Info

For more information on Project ACT, contact Peggy Florio at 410-828-7700 or 800-492-2523.

The program serves families in Baltimore and Baltimore, Howard, Carroll, Harford, Frederick, Prince George's, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

For more information on how to find day care placement for any child in Maryland, contact Locate Child Care at 410-625-1111.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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