Enosburgh meeting describes child care issues

From left: Village trustees Guy Breault and Leonard Charren, Enosburg Falls Elementary School Principal Michelle Lussier, and Cheryl Heneveld take part in a discussion of childcare at the Enosburgh Emergency Services Building on Thursday. (Michelle Monroe, MESSENGER STAFF)

ENOSBURG FALLS — The Enosburgh Initiative is poised to address some of the challenges surrounding childcare in the region, following a meeting on Thursday.

About two dozen people attended the meeting, from childcare providers to Michelle Lussier, the Enosburg Falls Elementary School Principal, to village trustees Leonard Charron and Guy Breault.

After hearing from experts, who outlined the scope of the problem, the group compiled answers to the question of what can be done in the next six to 12 months to sustain existing resources.

Michelle Trayah, of Northwestern Counseling and Support Services, outlined the scope of the problem.

Between December 2015 and June 2018, Franklin County lost 32.5 percent of registered or licensed home day cares, going from 126 to 85.

During that same period, the number of childcare centers dropped by 2 to 15.

The loss of providers is a national trend, said Trayah, but Franklin County is one of the hardest hit areas of the state.

“We know you have more kids than there is available slots,” said Trayah, adding that often means parents have little choice about where to send their kids.

The lack of choice is an issue all in itself since it limits the ability of parents to find the best fit for both their child and family. “Childcare… is not a one size fits all shoe,” said Trayah.

The loss of providers means there are no slots for 72 percent of infants in Franklin County who may need one, with 98 percent of those infants unable to find a place with a high quality childcare provider, as defined by state requirements.

Jim Cameron, who organized the meeting, commented that he’d read 70 percent of women who don’t work don’t have access to childcare. There is an economic cost to those women being unable to work, he noted.

Asked why centers are closing, Trayah said the state has surveyed those who left and she has spoken with about 90 percent of those who’ve left the profession. “One of the biggest reasons is people are moving,” she said.

A desire for a job with health care benefits is another reason.

Providers are also retiring. “That is going to be our biggest challenge in the next two years,” said Trayah.

Rhonda McAllister, a childcare provider from Berkshire, said rules and regulations from the state were also a factor.

“We definitely see the trend of the loss of slots,” said Melissa Riegel-Garrett, a childcare development specialist with the Agency of Human Services. “What we don’t see is a lot of openings. It’s true nationwide.”

Having defined the problem, Cameron moved the discussion on to what could be done within the next six to 12 months to keep providers from leaving the business.

Benefits and pay, he noted immediately, would have to go on the list. That might seem like something beyond the reach of an individual employer or community, but there were hints of what might be done when Matt Miner asked about the gap between what parents can afford and providers need to earn sustain their businesses.

Riegel-Garrett explained that the state subsidizes care for families that meet income requirements, but it doesn’t meet the full cost.

The providers in the room, led by McAllister, agreed that they often don’t ask families to pay the difference between their full rates and the state subsidy. “We’re like ‘just forget it’ because we know they don’t have it,’” said McAllister.

The state has adjusted subsidy rates for infants and toddlers to reflect current costs, but the subsidy rate for preschool and school-age children (who may go to a daycare after school) remain based on 2010 numbers, said Riegel-Garrett. The subsidy program is underfunded, but there is a bill before the General Assembly to raise those rates.

Some employers also offer childcare assistance, Riegel-Garrett said, and some of the larger childcare providers offer scholarships.

In the summer, home childcare providers are allowed to take four additional children, provided they have another adult to help with care and supervision. McAllister suggested the state could increase the available slots if they allowed providers to do this during the school year as well. Even being able to take additional kids when school is unexpectedly canceled would help parents, she explained.

Riegel-Garrett suggested an easy way to find qualified substitutes who have been through the required background checks would also help providers, leading Enosburgh provider Nancy Mung to comment that it would be nice to be able to go to the doctor.

Holding required trainings locally would make it easier for providers to attend, said Mung.

Riegel-Garrett added that it isn’t time at trainings that makes a difference in the quality of childcare provided but mentoring and coaching.

To that end, Kurt Valenta suggested creating a program for childcare providers like an existing program for businesses in which retired business owners provide advice and support to those just starting out.

Mung also raised an issue local governments can address: zoning and utility requirements. Mung said she had to pay for additional water and wastewater allocations in the village when she began providing childcare because she was now a commercial business. Those costs can be prohibitive for people wanting to enter the field.

The state is also in the midst of revamping STARS, the program it uses to measure the quality of childcare providers. The system is being simplified and focused on those standards which make the most difference in the quality of care children receive, said Riegel-Garrett.

At its next meeting, the Initiative will take the suggestions made for immediate improvements, decide which can be impacted locally and determine which of those it will try and help solve, explained Cameron. The group will meet Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Emergency Services Building in Enosburgh. All are welcome.

In addition, local business leaders will be meeting to talk about childcare on May 6 as part of a United Way-led discussion of the “formidable four” barriers to employment – housing, transportation, childcare and drug use.

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Women United addresses ‘formidable four’