Who's Minding the Kids?

Anatomy of a Baby's Death in New Jersey

Changes in policy will likely require better education for mothers coming to agencies like Four C's. Williams says the agencies inform mothers that they have a choice and that the "safest" form of care is in regulated centers. But Minus doesn't recall being warned of safety issues during her brief encounter with Four C's. Heins also says that caregivers are encouraged to become registered, because the program includes child safety education and an in-depth background check. But that never happened in the Minus case either. "We are going to be talking with mothers about some of the benefits [of registered day care]," says Heins, who stresses, however, that mothers will not be prevented from using family.

Minus's excruciating grief makes it difficult for her to grapple with the idea that somehow a long-fought welfare-to-work battle in Washington imploded in her backyard. TANF's implementation has for years placed states under intense pressure to meet a rapidly growing need for publicly funded child care that often doesn't exist. In the '90s, when the welfare rolls began shrinking, states like New Jersey that offer transitional child care for newly working families—many of whom make minimum wage—felt even more pressure. State spending on child care in New Jersey grew to $220 million in 2002, up from $133 million in '98. The number of child care centers grew to 3700 from 2100—still not enough.

Some advocates accuse the states of encouraging individual child care to save money. Most states pay significantly less for individual care than for registered day care. New Jersey saves about 40 percent. The average cost per week for a toddler in registered day care is $147, compared to $70 in an individual's home. "Obviously, if you could get someone to choose less expensive care, you could save money," says Stacie Golin, a child welfare specialist at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Saving money is not the issue, Heins assures. "We are not trying to make this lucrative—we are trying to encourage regulated care without saying you can't use grandma," he says.

Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey

But the problem lends itself to an even larger question—one that has barely been posed publicly since the welfare debates of the late '90s died down: Is it appropriate and safe to force mothers of young children into the work world, and compel them to rapidly find child care? That question seems especially poignant now that even stricter laws stand to be passed, says Sherry Leiwant of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund. "There is a chance to change this in the Senate, and that's where our focus will be," says Leiwant, who is not feeling hopeful. Last year, for instance, Senator Hillary Clinton, who had pledged support for low-income mothers, voted for increased work hours, she says. The death of Senator Paul Wellstone, who led the fight against harsher welfare requirements last year, is another blow for advocates.

Six weeks after Myssiah's death, Minus, who had not eaten a full meal since he died, found herself interviewing for a job caring for the elderly. State and federal laws collided in her life in a way that makes her future seem tenuous. When she called the county welfare agency about a week after Myssiah's death, the caseworker gave her condolences and told her that her benefits would end immediately, which meant losing her Medicaid, food stamps, and her job-seeking class.

Bowman sits in jail awaiting a grand jury hearing and then possibly a trial that could end up as a five-to-seven-year term. "I have had a nervous breakdown," she says. "You can't tell me that he is dead. I loved him." Some days Minus wants Bowman to pay. "I see women on the street who fit her description and my heart starts beating fast and I am so scared." Other days she doesn't want the further pain of knowing she is in jail. "The only thing bad I can say about her is that she killed Myssiah," says Minus. "But she also gave him so much. I feel so confused."

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