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Who's Watching Your Child?

When I went back to work part-time, my husband and I hired Dawn to care for our baby, then 18 months old. Dawn seemed the perfect sitter: She and Oliver were crazy about each other, and she had plenty of experience with other kids who adored her. Then one day she mentioned having a lead foot behind the wheel. Since the only cars they'd been driving together were plastic, this hadn't been a problem. Yet it made me nervous, because up till then, I would have handed Oliver -- and my car keys over to her for a trip to the playground.
This revelation hit home: It's easy for parents to become lulled into a false sense of security, even if they've checked references and double-checked childcare credentials. While cases of abuse by a sitter are rare, none of us wants to be that case. Fortunately, there are crucial ways you can lower your child's risk of harm:

Daycare: What to do before you decide

Get independent verification

Double-check all the information a prospective daycare provider gives you, says Erika Karres, author of Violence Proof Your Kids Now. If the center is licensed, call the state bureau to make sure the license is current and ask about any complaints the provider has had in the past. If the provider says she is accredited, make sure that's the case.Unless a provider has lied about it, lack of accreditation doesn't have to be a deal breaker -- applying for accreditation is voluntary, and many small, home-based caregivers don't bother. Without it, though, you have one safety check fewer, so additional sleuthing on your part is important. Check references, but don't just go with the ones you're handed. "Chat with the parents you see dropping off their kids," Karres says. Find out why they go there -- and what they don't like about the center.

Take a good look around

Noticing details about a daycare center or family-care provider's home can help you make an informed decision, says Karres. Look at everything from the floor's condition to how the house looks from outside. Is there plenty of room for kids to move around? Do you see workers washing their hands? Are there smoke alarms and safety gates, do they schedule monthly safety drills, or is there too much trash and not enough lighting?
Don't assume that a perfectly neat room means a well-run operation. "What's going to happen if your kid throws a bowl of spaghetti?" says Pamela Rowse, president of the Kierra Harrison Foundation for Child Safety, in Las Vegas. Instead, think about whether the kids look comfortable just being kids.
Find out how many staff members there are, too. Experts recommend a ratio of at least one adult to every four babies, and two adults in a classroom of up to 18 2- and 3-year-olds. These aren't state or national requirements, though, so if the numbers don't match up exactly, you'll have to decide if the ratio still seems reasonable.
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