SALEM -- For eight months after her daughter Jordan was born, Salem resident Denise Stewart worked in Portland where her parents could help with child care. But when she got a job closer to home she needed other help, and the problems began.
"I couldn't find anyone who would take an infant," she said, and finally had to place the child with the first willing provider.
Jordan quickly deteriorated. She would come home and just stare at the walls and cry. After 10 months, Stewart pulled Jordan from the home.
"The quality of that day care definitely affected my child. It's very scary," Stewart said. "Before she went there she was a happy baby."
She isn't alone. Marion and Polk counties have fewer child-care slots than most Oregon counties and a nationwide study rated Oregon among the least-affordable states for child care and near the bottom for quality oversight.
That means there isn't much quality care out there, Salem parent Erica Dunsmore said.
"We've known now for probably two decades that roughly 80 percent of the child's brain is formed by the time they are 4 or 5 and enter school," said Linda Smith, director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
But many parents don't realize that, social development experts say.
People think of child care as just day care or baby-sitting, Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson said. "It's so much more than that."
Oregon is the ninth least-affordable state for infant care, and the 13th least-affordable for preschool-age care, according to the national referral agency. It's 10th least-affordable for single parents.
State and federal guidelines define affordable child care as not exceeding 10 percent of household income. In Oregon last year, the average cost of full-time infant care was $8,988, or 46 percent of the median single-parent family income of $19,569.
The average cost of care for two children in a center was $15,468, or 79 percent of the median single-parent family income.
Salem resident Arlette Schuett and her husband started looking for day care for their twin infant girls in January. Some places don't allow a price break for that or may have just one opening.
The state counts children up to 2 years old as infants, and requires a higher staff-to-child ratio, making care even more expensive.
They finally hired a teenager to make sure someone was home with the twins until they found someone to take both girls.
Tom Olsen, the administrator of the state Child Care Division, said he doesn't know why care in Oregon is so unaffordable. But he said providers can't charge what it costs to take care of the children and parents can't afford even that.
That requires government assistance, especially for low-income families, he said.
Until last year, Oregon was one of the stingiest states for child-care subsidies for low-income working families. Last October, state lawmakers upped the amount to cover families earning 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $39,900 per year for a family of four. The cutoff had been 150 percent.
Only 20 percent of eligible families receive benefits, according to state figures. And only about half of child-care providers accept children receiving subsidies because of paperwork and delays in getting paid.
Oregon ranks second-to-worst nationwide behind Idaho for oversight of child-care centers, meaning that while Oregon has regulations, they aren't enforced, association director Smith said.
And Oregon's standards are low to begin with, said Olsen of the state Child Care Division. "We are not that strict. Our regulations are basically the floor below which you should not go."
A state-registered or certified day care, Olsen said, means only that the facility is at least maintaining a safe environment. Oregon has been a pretty much anti-regulatory state, he said.
"I think we do a good job of inspecting our homes for the rules, for the statutory authority we have," Olsen said.
Statewide, there are about 40 inspectors overseeing 1,389 child-care centers and 4,694 family child-care homes.
Smith said inspectors don't need even an associate degree because of union rules but that most inspectors do have bachelor's degrees.
Day care teachers and child-care center directors don't need even a high school diploma, Smith said. Oregon is among 10 such states.
Salem parent Becky Welch recommended checking on day-care operators' histories.
She said one forced her child to take naps and withheld snacks if she moved. Another did not allow the children to sit on the furniture.
"I think people should definitely ask their children more questions about what happens when they're not around. Spend time at the day care," Welch said.
Providers are exempt from licensing if they care for three or fewer children, not including their own. Forty percent of Oregon children in care are in unlicensed facilities, which can cost less but parents then gamble with quality.
A 2004 Oregon State University survey found that 12 percent of parents said their children do not always feel safe and secure in their child care. Forty-four percent said their children lack ample individual attention.