CORVALLIS - A new study has tried to shed a little light on the in-home child care providers of Oregon, a behind-the-scenes business whose participants often work an emotionally draining job, for long hours, at low pay and in sometimes difficult isolation.

These care providers are actually a major industry with almost 12,000 workers who have a huge impact on families and the social fabric of the region - but until now, experts say, very little has been known about them.

The analysis, done by the Survey Research Center at Oregon State University, identified a group of people with a wide variety of training and education who are often new to the job - 37 percent less than two years - and sometimes eager to improve their skills. About 85 percent chose the job because they wanted to, not because they had to have a job.

On average, they care for about five children, three or four of them younger than five years old. They take advantage of some state support programs, in droves, but barely even know about others.

"Family care in a home setting is one of the most commonly chosen forms of childcare, and we know so little about it," said Janis Elliot, administrator of the Oregon Child Care Division. "We're using this survey to help figure out who these people are, why are they doing this work and how we could help them do it even better."

The survey was done by Virginia Lesser, director of the Survey Research Center, and research assistant Pamela Bodenroeder. A sample of 199 Oregon child care providers was done from both rural and urban areas of the state.

More than 80 percent of respondents said they started this profession at least in part to stay home with their own child. But quite a few stick with it - 62 percent have been doing it three years or more and 27 percent now have no younger children of their own.

The study found the biggest success story was the USDA Food Support Program, which can improve child nutrition and reimburse caretakers for food. It had 77 percent participation and near unanimous approval.

An equal percentage used childcare resource and referral agencies - and three fourths of the people found these programs somewhat or very helpful.

Other findings of the research:

- About 90 percent of participants found support groups helpful, but only 27 percent actually attended a family child care support group, and 16 percent a church, school or community support group.

- The most commonly cited forms of training were previous babysitting experience or talking with other providers.

- Slightly more than half of Oregon's providers had attended workshops, and 96 percent of the attendees found them somewhat or very helpful.

- Nearly half of the daycare providers felt that it was important to receive some type of academic credit or recognition for going to workshops and classes.

- The information age hasn't reached home child care - only eight percent have computers hooked up to an on-line or Internet service.

- About 78 percent of caretakers live with another employed adult.

- About 45 percent of the caretakers have a high school diploma, but 11 percent have a college degree and one out of 200 has a graduate degree.

- The average age of the provider is 35, but one out of four are in their 20s and 12 percent are over 50.

"We were pleased, on one level, to see that more than three fourths of the providers were taking part in the food support program," Elliot said. "Even so, we'd like to see it higher. Why not 95-100 percent? Part of the answer is probably that people don't even know some of these things exist."

Breaking through that barrier of isolation, Elliot said, is one of the bigger challenges of her agency.

"The demands and long hours of the job, in addition to caring for one's own family, often leave little time or energy for further training or support programs," Elliot said. "But we believe so strongly in the value of these support groups that we would like to see higher participation."

Another interesting finding, she said, was the surprising demand for more academic recognition when people did take training programs.

"Especially with the providers who want to continue in-home child care as a profession, there's a need for more classes at high schools and community colleges," Elliot said. "There should also be systems that can help translate some of their real world work experiences into academic credit."

A survey similar to this may be repeated in a few years, Elliot said, to see if various state initiatives have made any impact on the perceived needs.

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Janis Elliot, 503-373-7282