Bedtime Story

THE KNEE-HIGH tables are stacked with chairs. Volunteers are freshening the baby-blue paint on miniature book cases. Some of the rooms at Agape Child Development Center are still an impossible jumble of red and blue plastic toys, pre-school workbooks, fuzzy sleep toys, and metal trucks. But a month from now, 60 kids aged 18 months and up will attend pre-school here every day. And 60 more will sleep here every night, making Agape the first 24-hour child-care center in the city of Minneapolis.

Housed in a converted nursing home on the near North Side, Agape is the off-shoot of an organization called Oasis of Love, a charity run out of Holding Forth the Word of Life Church. Oasis counsels battered women, their children, and their batterers, and conducts support groups for residents of homeless shelters. The idea for 24-hour child care came naturally from that work. "We were moving women because of domestic-violence situations," explains Diane Thibodeaux, Oasis's executive director. "They had to take on jobs, and because of their level of experience, the jobs they could get were night jobs. I thought surely family members would pull in, but I found that very few do."

When Thibodeaux looked for overnight child-care facilities, she didn't find any. Of the 60-odd Hennepin County day-care centers listed with the Child Care Resource Center, a referral service, only one is open until 11 p.m., none overnight. So Thibodeaux figured she'd just have to start one herself. "It's here, and it's something we have to deal with."

Under new welfare laws, the number families who need overnight child care is about to increase dramatically. Roughly 10 percent of workers in Hennepin and Ramsey counties work the graveyard shift; up to 20 percent work odd hours. A few night owls fill out their ranks, but most are low-skill, low-seniority workers. Competition for low-skilled work in the state is already keen: A recent study conducted by analysts at Northern Illinois University's Office for Social Policy Research found that up to 71 Minnesotans compete for every low-skilled job paying more than $25,907. Expect figures much worse after a growing percentage of the state's 60,000 or so welfare recipients move off public assistance and into entry-level jobs.

Thibodeaux is geared up for the demand. Because of various technical details involving zoning, funding, and renovation, which delayed the center's opening, she has only half the slots filled. But now that the center is on track to open this September, she expects that to change. "By the fall I'm sure we'll be full," she says.

The state Legislature allocated nearly $100 million in sliding-scale day-care subsidies for welfare recipients--none earmarked for overnight care--but so far none of it has found its way to Agape. The building was rehabbed, staff hired, and programming developed with grant money from the Council of Churches, the Greater Minneapolis Day Care Association, and Holding Forth the Word of Life. Eventually she hopes to recoup some of the operational costs of about $72,000 a month with sliding-scale fees. But she's not holding her breath. "Because we're dealing with welfare recipients," she explains, "we may have to subsidize people." Which means more private and church money.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that churches and private foundations are major funders. Welfare reform was nothing if not a wholesale government retreat from the war on poverty. "The community in general, and the faith community in particular, has stepped up to the line to assist--and they challenge others to look around their communities and help," says Jean Bauer, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. At least, that's the rosy perspective. It remains to be seen whether the religious community can fill the gap left by welfare reform.

In Wisconsin, where Gov. Tommy Thompson has put welfare reform on a fast track, the state has loosened its day-care licensing guidelines so that people with literally no training or experience are now certified by the state. Complaints against providers have tripled in the past 10 years. Night-time care comes with additional concerns: "Obviously there are different needs" for kids staying overnight in day-care centers, Bauer says, ticking off a few: a consistent sleep routine, space for dressing and undressing, shift changes that take place in the middle of the night, and "greater fears that surface at night." Overnight workers at Agape will be certified teachers and teachers' assistants. But as demand grows, problems parallel to Wisconsin's could develop in Minnesota.

The alternative, of course, is a throwback to the industrial revolution: children who don't work alongside their parents simply stay home alone while their parents work. It's that solution Thibodeaux won't countenance. "Kids have to have a safe place to be," she insists. "At Agape, there's someone available for them in the middle of the night. If they're afraid, somebody's there."

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