NEW YORK -- Every Friday, Kimberly Sedlacek gets to watch her 4-year-old daughter's dance performance at her day care center.
Sedlacek, a Boeing employee from Tacoma, Wash., isn't in the audience. She monitors Allison's performance through an Internet-linked camera system installed at the center.
"You get to check in on your children, and know they're safe," said Sedlacek, who considers the system a source of reassurance, not a distraction from work. "If I didn't have it, that would be more distracting."
Despite a slow start, the half-dozen firms selling the video systems say the market is growing. Since their introduction in 1997, the cameras have been installed in a few hundred of the nation's 100,000 private day care centers, enabling busy parents to peek at their children from afar.
"In five years, any center that doesn't have a viewing system will be at a major disadvantage," said Darius Vasefi, a vice president of KinderView in Bellevue, Wash. "It's a way of portraying trust -- saying 'Hey, we've got nothing to hide."'
KinderView has systems in more than 30 centers, with 62 more signing up, Vasefi said.
The industry leader is ParentWatch of New York, with video systems at more than 150 centers and a sales force that has grown from two to 20 in barely a year. It installs systems at larger centers after confirming sufficient interest among parents who pay $24.95 a month for the service.
Some child-care experts and center directors remain skeptical, saying the benefits of the cameras are offset by concerns about privacy and liability.
"I've talked to some centers that think it's terrific, but I've probably talked to more that are uncomfortable with it," said Lynn White, executive director of the National Child Care Association, which represents 7,000 private day care centers.
"Child care is already so expensive," she said. "We'd rather see the investment in teacher training."
Polly Greenberg, a child development expert with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said the machines shouldn't replace basic communication between parents and teachers.
"If everyone in a particular center feels comfortable with it, we wouldn't be opposed," she said. "But it shouldn't replace staff and parents talking to each other. A parent looking for a day care center should be asking, first and foremost, do I like this place and the way they're relating to the children."
Mary Frost, who owns two Connecticut day-care centers, has resisted a barrage of sales pitches from the video companies.
"We've only had a couple of parents express the desire to peek in from work," said Frost, who runs Ladder of Learning centers in Farmington and West Hartford. "The rest aren't interested. They feel very comfortable with our program, and they can stop in any time. Some of the parents just don't want their kids to be visible like that."
On the other hand, a chain of nearly 100 centers, Georgia-based Kids'R'Kids, is requiring video systems for its new franchises.
George Anderson, a Kids'R'Kids sales executive, said the systems have been a delight for parents away on business trips and for grandparents far from grandchildren. He dismissed privacy concerns as a problem.
"Our centers always had an open-door policy. Parents could come in anytime, and this just expands on that," he said.
White, however, said directors of some centers worry that parents might misconstrue what they observed in silent, sometimes jerky video footage of their children.
"Sometimes it's hard to figure out the situation," White said. "You might have a teacher shaking a finger at a child, but for a good reason. Or one child tries to bite another... Some parents are paranoid about this stuff."
ParentWatch and its competitors said they also take pains to ease parental fears by installing layers of cyber-security to keep pedophiles and other strangers off the Internet sites.
For parents like Sedlacek, the convenience and rewards of using the system are undeniable.
"The teachers never bring up the cameras with the children. Most of the time the kids forget it's there," she said. "But occasionally at nap time, Allison will look up at the camera and wave."
On the Net:
Kids'R'Kids Learning Centers: http://www.kidsrkids.com
National Child Care Association: http://www.nccanet.org
National Association for the Education of Young Children: http://www.naeyc.org
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