ST. ALBANS —  The issues of childcare, education, transportation and trauma all intersected Thursday night during a forum discussing economic issues facing Franklin County women.

The event was part of the Vermont Commission on Women’s Listening Project, a statewide survey aimed at assessing and addressing the needs that aren’t being met for Vermont women.

Thursday’s panel, held at St. Albans City Hall, included four local panelists from Northwestern Counseling and Support Services (NCSS), Let’s Grow Kids, Main Street Alliance Vermont and Community College of Vermont (CCV) who addressed some of the needs they see in the local community. Following updates from the panel, the forum then opened up to the audience, where area residents shared their own opinions with the commission.

Many of the issues brought up seemed to be intertwined with one another.

For instance, access to childcare and child support services largely relied on the freedom given by employers for families to utilize these programs. A freedom that, according to several people in attendance, the county lacks. Belinda Bessette, the Clinical Services Manager of the Children’s Division at NCSS, said this is one of the biggest issues she sees.

“We have a lot of families who come to us that are able to engage in our services but only very minimally, because their employers won’t allow them to leave work a certain amount of time,” Bessette said. “We find that one of the biggest barriers to receiving our services at times.”

This issue, Bessette says, is spilling over into childcare. She sees a lot of families who can’t even utilize the state funded universal pre-Kindergarten program.

“I have a preschooler myself, and it’s an amazing program that’s a huge benefit to families, but my employer allows me to leave and go get her and transport her back to daycare. A lot of people say they aren’t able to engage in that program because they don’t have the transportation,” Bessette said.

Denise Smith, program manager at RiseVT, who is also a St. Albans resident and a mother of three, pointed out this issue is centered around the manufacturing focused economy.

“The reality of our community is that there are manufacturing companies here that have very stringent rules on when you go to work, which is why there is no flexibility to when you pick up your children, or maybe you have to go to the food shelf, the hours are just not working on any level,” Smith said.   

Because many families are not able to utilize some of these programs, specifically for childcare, many women are being forced to leave the workplace. According to  Natalie Glynn of Let’s Grow Kids, 98 percent of the kids in Franklin County who need childcare don’t have access to high quality programs.

“Women are three times more likely to leave their career when their families can’t find or afford childcare, and that has negative impacts on businesses, schools, communities, the health care system and the economy as a whole,” Glynn stated.

With the median household income in Franklin County resting at $60,000, Glynn cited the projected loss in a two-income family when a woman is forced to leave her job until her child is eligible to enroll in kindergarten as $360,000.

This income doesn’t help with the effort of encouraging women to go back to school, an ongoing problem the state has been dealing with.

“One of the unique things about Vermont is we have the highest graduation rate in the nation, but we’re 41st in the nation when it comes to percentage of students after they graduate moving on to college,” Gretchen DeHart, coordinator of Academic Services at the Community College of Vermont said.

One way to address this issue, DeHart says, is to increase awareness of the Post-Secondary Education program in Vermont (PSE). PSE was designed to support single parents pursuing 2-4 year undergraduate degrees with monthly cash payments, support services and help with childcare, transportation and school supplies.

“It’s a wonderful program that is really underutilized, and I think it would be an enormous benefit to people,” DeHart said.

Another huge issue facing education, DeHart said, is the price of state tuition.

“The biggest barrier we see is the relatively low state appropriations that go to public education in Vermont. CCV has the highest tuition of any community college in the entire nation,” DeHart said.

At CCV it costs nearly $900 to take one course, and a minimum of 20 courses are required to obtain an Associates Degree. According to DeHart, 80 percent of CCV’s bills are paid through tuition.

“Until we balance that out and are able to charge less for courses, the more consistently we’re going to find people resistant to starting classes they might not finish, and taking on debt that they might not be able to pay back,” DeHart said.

Student debt was another big concern addressed at the forum. “With the raising cost of college, which doesn’t seem to be diminishing, coupled with the raising interest rates on already high student loans, we have a crisis already, and it’s only going to get worse,” former St. Albans Mayor, Liz Gamache said from the audience. “I just don’t even know how we’re going to be able to cultivate the potential we need, it’s being lost by too many student loans.

Safe, affordable housing and trauma were the two other big issues that seemed to coincide. According to Kris Lukens, the director of Voices Against Violence, access to housing is a barrier that is keeping many women in our area in unsafe situations.

“People want to leave, but they have no place to go. The stories we hear tear up your heart. Women and children are sleeping in their cars, it’s a huge issue,” Lukens said.

The group seemed to agree that stigmatization also deters many women dealing with trauma from coming forward. Smith mentioned an atmosphere of trauma that exists generationally, which seems to quickly be hushed.

“It seems to me there’s an underlying trauma that exists here that’s generational and off limits,” Smith said. This has been something the community has been working to address. From the awareness and support group Voices Against Violence, to various work in schools and other programs, there has been a lot of work combating this stigma.

“I’m really proud of this community for that, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Bessette said.

The forum, as titled, was a place for residents to bring forth their concerns while the Commission listened, so answers remained few.  The project continues to solicit views from both women and men throughout the state via an online survey accessed at www.women.vermont.gov. The Commission then plans to establish a set of policy goals to present to state lawmakers when they return to work in January.

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