Childcare a challenge

More children than spaces creates hardship for families

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — Childcare specialists recommend starting to look for a suitable childcare provider as early as possible, claiming it to be the biggest stressor in the lives of soon-to-be parents.

Finding care for a child with special needs can also be a challenge, according to a local parent whose son has been with 15 providers in five years.

“Honestly, when you know you’re pregnant, you should start looking for child care,” Danielle Lindley, the program manager for Northwestern Counseling & Support Services’ (NCSS) Family Center, said.

The study “Stalled at the Start: Vermont’s Child Care Challenge,” published in June analyzes the supply and demand for regulated infant and toddler care in Vermont. It was put out by Let’s Grow Kids, a public awareness campaign focused on the importance high-quality, affordable child care can play in a child’s first five years.

The study shows that almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to regulated early care and learning programs. On top of that, 79 percent of infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality programs.

When it comes to childcare licensing and registration requirements, infants are children ages six weeks to 23 months old. Toddlers are children ages two to three years old.

The study also looked at access to regulated and high-quality programs at the county level.

In Franklin County, there are 785 infants and 425 toddlers likely to need childcare, according to the study. Ninety-eight percent of the infants don’t have access to high-quality programs, while 65 percent don’t have access to any regulated programs.

The percentages are similar with toddlers; 94 percent of toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to high-quality programs, but only 26 percent don’t have access to any regulated programs.

“The biggest thing that we’re finding a low amount of is there’s not enough infant openings,” Michelle Trayah, the childcare resource development specialist for NCSS, said. “Infants are really hard to place right now, and that’s across the board, across all of the towns.”

Trayah said some of the towns do have fewer providers than others.

“We just got the first provider in many years, besides the local school, in Montgomery,” Trayah said. “That was a big win for us, to have someone regulated out there, because we haven’t had anyone in years.”

In total, Franklin and Grand Isle Counties have approximately 11 full-time year-long licensed care centers and more than 140 registered home providers. The latter, operating out of a house, can have up to six full time kids plus four school aged kids.

“It’s not enough,” Trayah said. “When I started this position over six years ago, we had almost 190 registered homes. It’s a statewide trend to have a loss in programs for the last six to seven years. It’s not just Franklin and Grand Isle Counties.”

The lack of available childcare providers is affecting working parents across the county, some more so than others.

Jen Stewart, 29, of Enosburg Falls has run into problems with day care since day one. “In my experience, there’s not enough providers that have training or a willingness to be accommodating to kids that are more challenging,” Stewart said.

Since her son Orion, 5, was born, he has been to more than 15 childcare providers. “I’ve stopped counting,” Stewart said. “I’ve had horrible luck with child care.”

As a single parent, childcare is a “necessity”, Stewart said.

“Sometimes I just picked the person that was new,” Stewart said, because “a lot of times new providers will have a lot vacancies.” Stewart said the new places don’t always stay afloat, however, because childcare is a financially unstable industry at times.

“We went to really good center in St. Albans, but then they shut down because they needed $10,000 to upgrade the sprinkler system,” she said. “They also had a hard time hanging onto quality staff.”

The average annual salary for a Vermont childcare worker is $24,850, according to the “Stalled at the Start” report. This is less than what the state considers to be a livable wage for a single person living in shared housing.

Other times, Stewart and her son have had to leave because of his behavioral and developmental issues, which she said, has been very hard on her son.

“There was one provider, I had zero notice,” Stewart said. The owner simply said, ‘He can’t come back tomorrow,’ according to Stewart.

“So no closure,” she said. “He couldn’t say goodbye to his friends.” All he knows now is that he’s not allowed to go there, which is horrible feeling, but I have no choice because I have to keep going to work, Stewart said.

“And it’s really a provider’s market,” Stewart continued. “They don’t have to be accommodating to kids with any need greater than your standard kid because there are plenty of kids on the waitlist that require less care.”

Because she needs childcare that can provide special services, openings for her son are even more rare. At one point, Orion was on a waitlist for a provider that had glowing recommendations and accreditations, but it ended up not being a good match because of his specific needs, Stewart said.

“I would say that if someone has something that’s working, don’t change it,” she said.

“We have people that will call us for referrals and say that they are willing to go two towns over,” Trayah said. “People are sometimes willing to travel to find the openings,” along their work commute.

“There are definitely waitlists for a lot of the programs, especially the centers,” Trayah said. “I know all of them are running on a waitlist at this point.”

She said trying to find an opening is especially tricky for infants because the allowed number of kids versus number of staff ratio is so small. In a registered home, there can be only two children under two.

“I honestly think I’m cursed when it comes to child care,” Stewart said. “And I hope, I really seriously hope that nobody else has to deal with what we’ve been through.”

“I’ve never gone outside of Franklin County, but this last time I was looking for child care, I literally looked at every provider in Enosburgh, Sheldon, Franklin and St. Albans,” Stewart continued. “Out of all the people that have an opening for his age, only one person I talked to actually had an opening.”

Although there are organizations that provide lists of childcare centers with openings, the information was often out of date in Stewart’s experience.

“Thankfully the one we have now is really good,” she said, with Orion currently at a provider in Sheldon. “I hope it lasts.”

“Parenting alone is a challenge,” Stewart said. “Single parenting is another level of challenging. And then dealing with finding day care so often throughout his life, is just chronically stressful.”

“I feel like even though we’re in a good spot now, we can’t really settle down and get a feeling of, this is permanent, this is going to last because it may not and I have to be ready for that,” she said. “Ready for if this doesn’t work, what is our back up plan? Which sucks. It really sucks.”

According to the US Census Bureau, more than 70 percent of Vermont children under the age of six live in families where all available parents are in the labor force.

That adds up to be more than two out of three children.

Finding a childcare provider isn’t the only hurtle new parents must overcome. Affording high quality childcare is another whole ball game.

According to the 2014 report “How Are Vermont’s Young Children and Families?,” issued by Building Bright Futures, middle class families with two children spend 28 to 40 percent of their annual income on child care. However, the federal Agency of Health and Human Services has previously recommended that families spend no more than 10 percent of their income on child care costs.

According to the 2014 Vermont Child Care Market Rate Survey conducted by the Vermont Department for Children and Families, in St. Albans, the average weekly cost for an infant and toddler at a licensed childcare center in the 75th percentile is $200. For registered homes, an infant costs $150 and toddlers $140.

“There is a financial assistance program that people can apply to,” Trayah said, referring to the Child Care Financial Assistance Program. But “there is an income scale they have to meet and criteria, such as the parents have to have a service need in order to qualify.”

In a family size of three or fewer, the monthly income limit for 100 percent subsidy paid by the state to the childcare provider is $1,649, according to the income eligibility guidelines. For a family size of five, it’s $2,326.

“If the parents qualify, they are issued a certificate to help pay the costs of child care,” Trayah said. “What usually happens is the cost that the state pays does not match the cost that the provider charges. So there is a co-pay.”

Trayah said parents end up having to pay a co-pay because the financial assistance program is several years old and is not keeping pace with the state’s determination of a livable wage.

In addition, childcare costs are on the rise. The market rates for a preschool age child in a licensed child care center increased from $170 per week to $215 per week between 2008 and 2014, a 26 percent hike over a five year period, according to the 2014 Vermont Child Care Market Rate Survey. In registered homes, weekly market rates jumped from $130 to $150, a 15 percent hike.

“Honestly, everyone that I talk to that’s either having a baby or talking about child care, I’m like, ‘Good luck,’” Stewart said. “It’s horrible.”

The report “Stalled at the Start” outlines reasons why quality care is so important for the first five years of a child’s life.

“Science tells us that the first five years are the most important years in a child’s life for healthy brain development. It’s a time when the brain is creating its foundation for learning and development, forming 700 to1,000 new connections every second,” according to the report.

“Science has also found that positive interactions with caregivers support and strengthen these connections, supporting the brain’s foundation for healthy development,” the report stated.

Research by economist James Heckman has also found that investments in early childhood programs can yield a seven to ten percent annual return by reducing future costs in education, health care and corrections.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care will host five public forums around the state on July 25 and July 26 to learn more about the troubles new parents and guardians are facing when it comes to childcare providers.

The commission wants to hear more from Vermonters on the following three questions:

  • What would help you the most in respect to accessing high-quality childcare?
  • What are the responsibilities of Vermont to help ensure all Vermonters have access to high-quality child care?
  • What should we do to make accessible, high-quality child care more affordable in Vermont?

There will be a forum on July 25 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Champlain Senior Center on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington. Written testimony may also be emailed to commission chair Charlotte Ancel at Charlotte.Ancel@greenmountainpower.com or Agency of Administration representative Jessica.Gingras@vermont.gov. Written testimony will be posted online unless otherwise requested.

  • April Christenson

    Providing high quality care inexpensive and time consuming. A number of programs closed when the new regs passed, either because they couldn’t afford the changes or they couldn’t afford taking even more time from their own families. It’s quite possible that others will as they attempt to implement them.

    Children need to be safe. But when regulations tack on hours of additional cleaning and paperwork or require thousands of dollars in changes or make providing care logistically difficult and frankly, unfun, providers have to assess what they are willing to sacrifice of their own family and sanity for the business.

    Outsiders have no idea how costly it is to run a child care business nor the time and emotional investment. The state can encourage and retain high quality programs by providing supports to providers, being more helpful than punitive when it comes to licensing, and by not sucking the very joy out of the business with rules that go well beyond basic safety.

    When you push providers out and set up rules that discourage new providers from registering, you end up with even fewer programs. I predict that finding care will only get more difficult.