Kansas University and Douglas County offer child-care referral services that give parents a better idea of what's out there.
Jan Brummell has six pages, front and back, of openings in Lawrence area child care homes and facilities.
That doesn't mean finding a spot for your child is as easy as 1-2-3. But the Douglas County Child Development Assn. and the Kansas University Dependent Care Referral Service are good places to start.
"You need to approach it just like you'd approach any consumer service," said Brummell, director of the Douglas County Child Development Assn. "Some people want homes, some people want centers ... you need the best match."
According to the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, Douglas County has almost 300 registered and licensed day-care homes, child-care centers and preschools. Depending on the type of care, costs can range from $65 to $125 per week per child.
"Lawrence and Douglas County are blessed with lots of different kinds of care," Brummell said. "(But) many new parents don't have any idea what the accepted practices and regulations are."
Many, in fact, are starting from scratch. And most child care facilities do not have the resources to tout their services with advertising.
"That's where the referral services really come in handy," said Betty Peterson, office coordinator of KU dependent care referral service. "And they also help to ensure quality. We're trying to get the public informed."
KU's referral center was established in 1990. Both KU's and Douglas County's free referral services are funded in part by the United Way and by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
"Referrals in the U.S. have been a more nationalized phenomenon for the last 10 years," Peterson said.
Factors to consider are not in short supply. Do parents work during the day? What about second or third shift, at night? Do parents need a center within walking distance if they lack transportation? What kind of educational curriculum, if any, is desired?
"There is a lot available, but it's a matter of 'can the parent find the type of care they're looking for?'" Brummell said. "Different parents have different needs."
Also, how many children do you have to factor into the equation? Costs for three children in full-time care can easily top $1,000 a month.
"There are a lot of people who work here (at KU) who are salaried, who do not make that much," Peterson said.
The age group that is most difficult for which to find care is under 18 months. The openings are much fewer -- because the child-to-provider ratio drops to two or three to one -- and the calls are much greater.
The list of potential questions and concerns is endless.
"It is helpful to use referral services to educate people what to choose, what to look for," Peterson said. "Not to just make a phone call and leave your kid there."
Of course, a child's safety is the overriding concern.
Referral services can help parents locate adequate care, but they do not investigate abuse, neglect, or other misdeeds by care providers. The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department keeps track of any such violations, which unfortunately do occur.
Glenna Nance, child care surveyor for the health department, said her agency is the watchdog for inadequate care. Nance leads inspections of homes and centers, but her office can't be everywhere at once.
Mostly, the inspections function on a complaint basis.
"We have the right of entry in any licensed home or facility," Nance said. "We try to be more than just regulators, we try to be teachers."
Among the red flags: a child who cries constantly before being left at day care, or who does not speak at all in the morning.
"Parents need to trust their judgment," Nance said. "If the child is happy to go ... then that's probably a good home."
Generally, Nance encouraged parents to keep their eyes and ears open.
"We do have good day care (in Lawrence), but I will caution (parents) to do their homework," Nance said. "We have some that aren't good, and sometimes it's hard to get people out of the system."