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Parents struggle to find child care, starting while pregnant

December 28, 2018

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Working women and parents-to-be reaching that crucial 10-week mark and entering the second trimester in Frederick County are being warned by friends and centers alike: Start looking for child care now.

At seven months pregnant, Janelle Ober, who lives in Ballenger Creek, is in the middle of embarking on her search for child care in the area. She said when it comes to infant care openings, space is limited and the prices are shocking.

“Centers that we have visited have told us to make a decision by the end of the month,” Ober said. “I never dreamed it would be this expensive.”

Some centers in Frederick County have lengthy waitlists and have even decided to turn parents away, particularly those of infants. But a lack of licensed child care options to meet the needs of families is not unique to the county.

A report released by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy institute, found that 51 percent of people in Maryland live in a child care desert, defined as any census area with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. Maryland had more child care deserts by this definition than 30 other states, and numerous deserts in the state were in Frederick County.

At Little Lights Child Development Center, program director Rachel Pyles said they are turning families away because there is no room at the center. Beyond a post on its Facebook page, the center has never needed to advertise openings since it opened six years ago, Pyles said.

There are three women who are still months away from giving birth but have paid to hold a spot at Little Lights for summer 2019, Pyles said. She advises expecting parents to find a provider as soon as they know the mother is pregnant. And she warns: Pay for a spot; don’t just get on a waitlist.

“If you don’t, you’re not guaranteed anything when you have a baby,” Pyles said.

Ballenger Creek KinderCare expanded its services this year, too, adding a new teacher and doubling its infant room to accommodate 10 children, said Cara King, assistant director. Services for infants and toddlers put a greater strain on caregivers because more supervision is required. Maryland law requires a caregiver-to-toddler ratio of 1 to 3, whereas the ratio is 1 to 10 for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“We’re actually thinking that we have a toddler room that’s unused right now that we might end up having to use as another infant room,” King said. “It’s just so unpredictable sometimes.”

Kristie Tanner, who lives in Frederick, said she even thought about looking for child care near her job in Gaithersburg instead of continuing to search near Frederick when her kids were young. Safety concerns on the long drive ultimately discouraged her from that option, but finding a place without a waitlist that was within her family’s budget in Frederick was a game of weighing pros and cons.

“Some places had waiting lists, others had openings right away — though I did find it was hard to get an opening when my kids were infants,” Tanner said. “Families really need to do their homework. A lot of the places we toured we left knowing it wasn’t the place for us. Either the facility didn’t look clean or the teachers looked overwhelmed trying to juggle kids. ... There are a lot of places that provide child care. It’s just about what is important to you.”

While multiple child care providers in the county said infant care is the most sought-after in the business right now, even Little Lights’ educational prekindergarten program has become so full it was split into two half-day sessions with children receiving basic day care the other half of the day.

Karen Keenan, director of the Mount Airy Daycare and Learning Center, said the center has an extensive waitlist for all ages and has found the same is true for other providers in the area.

“Right now, to be honest, we’re looking into the spring or likely fall of 2019, so it’s a pretty long list,” Keenan said. She tries to help parents by referring them to other centers, but said, “I contact child care providers in the area and say, ‘We have an abundance of calls and a waiting list eight pages long,’ and they say, ‘So do we,’ so I know other centers have a waitlist for other centers.”

Mount Airy, for example, is identified by the Center for American Progress as a child care desert. Totaling all licensed home and facility providers in one census tract of Mount Airy, there are 48 spots for the 362 children under 5 years old living in that tract. Similarly, in the Brunswick edge of Frederick County, there are 438 children under the age of 5, but the total child care capacity in that census tract is only 80 spots.

In-home care is an option some parents seek because they believe it offers a more comfortable environment, but the number of children they can accept is often very limited. Karen Speck, an in-home provider in Thurmont who runs Ms. Karen’s Family Child Care, said there are three families on her waitlist. However, those children could be school-aged by the time Speck would be able to provide services.

“Right now, I don’t foresee an opening for at least two years,” Speck said.

Adding to the challenge of limited options, families struggling to cover the basic costs of living in Frederick County report child care as one of their top costs, according to the United Way’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) report released in September.

Federal guidelines state families are “cost burdened” by child care costs if they spend more than 10 percent of their budget on care. A third of Maryland families are burdened with the cost, according to a 2016 report from the University of New Hampshire. In Frederick County, families are paying an average of 20 percent, or $20,436 a year, for two children, according to a 2017 report from the Maryland Family Network.

The high cost of care forces families to cobble together different types of care, such as using child care centers part time and relying on family members to help the rest of the time. Parents change their work schedules to be home more.

There are more than 17,000 children age 5 and under in Frederick County, according to U.S. Census data.

Shannon Aleshire, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, said that in 20 years of working with families and providers in the area, she has seen the number of family providers in the area cut in half because of increased regulations and cost. The high cost of care is pushing families that are constrained financially to seek cheaper but less safe forms of care.

“My assumption would be that there are a lot of children who are in some type of unregulated care, and that’s where I get concerned,” Aleshire said.

More families are now eligible for the state’s Child Care Subsidy Program after the maximum eligible income levels were doubled in August. A family of four with an income of up to $71,525 now qualifies for financial assistance. But providers do not have to accept these vouchers.

“We want to get as many providers as we can to accept child care scholarships because we want families to have choices. Not every child care situation fits every family,” Aleshire said. “The more choices we can supply for families, the better off we will be in the end.”

Frederick Alderman Ben MacShane is making child care a budget priority for the city in his first term. He said the expanded voucher program is a good start on helping local families, but he thinks the city can do more to help.

“Some of those vouchers and subsidies are focused on the family side of things,” MacShane said. “I think, in the city, we can focus on the service side of things to make it as easy as possible to open that business to be a child care provider.”

MacShane said licensing costs and regulations for service providers can prevent new businesses from opening. He is in the early stages of drafting programs to help people with the cost of opening a child care business, along with providing technical assistance in navigating the application and regulations.

Lauren Sinay is a single mother in Ballenger Creek with two children, one school-aged and one in day care full time. She’s gone through an in-home care provider who just stopped showing up, and unsuccessful searches for a provider that stays open when school is closed for a snow day or break. She finally settled on KinderCare, where she said the staff is like family, but finding a perfect fit meant paying more — about $24,000 last year.

“Infant care is expensive. It’s ridiculous,” Sinay said. “But it’s just an expense working parents have to go through ... It’s very costly, and as a single mom, it’s really difficult. But you just have to suck it up.”

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Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

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