May 31, 2016Burlington Free Press
April Burbank
SOUTH BURLINGTON - Kate Anger was three months pregnant, stressed and running out of time.
 
She and her husband, Kyle, faced the daunting challenge of finding high-quality child care in Vermont for an infant. After months of searching, they finally found one opening for their son, Gordon, who was born in January.
 
"I got really, really lucky," said Anger, who lives in South Burlington. Then she found out the cost.
 
Even after finding an opening, the Angers struggled to come up with $245 per week to pay for the care, among other expenses. As a middle-income family, they did not qualify for government assistance, and soon the numbers pushed them into another search.
 
The Angers recently found a new, lower-cost registered family home placement through a word-of-mouth referral.
 
“The whole process is extremely, extremely stressful," said Anger, who added that she wanted to share her story to draw attention to the tangled child care situation for thousands of Vermont parents.
 
A new analysis by the child care advocacy organization Let’s Grow Kids shows Vermont’s regulated child care system lacks sufficient capacity to keep up with the potential demand.
 
The need is most acute for an estimated 8,502 infants likely to need care, who must compete for about 3,274 slots at regulated programs across the state.
 
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and we’ve never nailed the numbers down,” said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner overseeing the child development division at the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
 
Even large center-based child care programs are struggling.
 
Barbara Rachelson, executive director of the family services organization Lund and a state representative in Burlington, said infant child care is expensive and difficult to justify financially.
 
“We are committed to the 50 children that we’re providing child care to, but we lose so much money every year," Rachelson said at a recent meeting in South Burlington organized by Let's Grow Kids.
 
Meanwhile, home-based child care providers are shutting their doors or dropping out of the regulated market.
 
“Programs are just closing like crazy,” said Rachel Hunter, a registered family day care provider in Springfield who serves as a mentor for other providers through Vermont Birth to Five.
 
In a 12-month period in and around Springfield, Hunter said four programs have closed, four have dropped their registration but continued to operate with children, and only one new program opened.
 
She worries that programs that drop registration no longer are required to meet legal and safety standards such as child-to-teacher ratios or keep current on training such as CPR and first aid.
 
Murphy, the deputy commissioner at the Department for Children and Families, said Vermont has a “very active” unregulated child care system beneath the regulated market.
 
Some of those child care situations might be the family’s preference, Murphy said, such as a family member or a trusted friend.
 
“What we really don’t know about demand is preference,” Murphy said. “How much of what parents are choosing today is based on constraint because of cost or lack of access, and how much of it is preference?”
 
Numbers on the scramble
 
Let’s Grow Kids estimates that regulated child care programs can accommodate about 53 percent of Vermont infants and toddlers with working parents who are likely to need care.
 
“A lot of people are very lucky to have family around, so that's a big safety net for many people, but if you don’t have family around, you’re in a very tough place,” said Christine Gibson of Shoreham, a parent and member of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care, which is working toward solutions.
 
Child care programs with high quality scores through the state’s voluntary STARS system can accommodate just 21 percent of kids likely to need care, according to the report.
 
The supply-and-demand equation for infants is worst in Essex and Orange counties, according to the Let's Grow Kids analysis.
 
Franklin County and the three other counties along the Canadian border face the greatest lack of high-quality infant care, though the analysis does not account for families that cross county lines to drop kids off at child care.
 
“We know families are making it work somehow right now,” said Jen Horwitz, who spearheaded the report as policy and research director for Let’s Grow Kids.
 
The analysis focuses solely on capacity, leaving aside any question of affordability or whether families have reliable transportation to bring kids to child care.
 
The numbers will serve as a baseline for advocates and state officials who want all Vermont families to have access to good, affordable options.
 
No one knows yet how new regulations on child care providers — which touch everything from meal planning to playground safety to provider training — would further shift the landscape this year.
 
Lawmakers approved the new regulations this month despite some concerns about how family child care home providers would be affected.
 
The pinch on providers
 
The kids at Diane Russell’s home in Milton refer to her and her husband as “Gram” and “Pepe.” She’s been in the child care business so long she’s raising a second generation.
 
Russell has earned three stars in the state’s STARS rating system and is working on earning a fourth. She said she attends hours of training each year to learn how to serve children better.
 
But she will have to work to meet the new state regulations that take effect this fall, which require home child care providers to hold a high school diploma or GED. Russell will earn that diploma at age 65, though she’s unsure why the state is adding that requirement.
 
“I’m a mom, I’m a grandmother, I’m a great grandmother,” Russell said, “and those are the things that taught me how to take care of kids, not a high school diploma.”
 
State regulators say research suggests children achieve better outcomes if child care providers have more education.
 
The new regulations represent the biggest change Russell has adapted to in 24 years in the business. Her business will stay open, but she says the regulations will scare others into shutting their doors.
 
Hunter, the child care provider in Springfield, said she and others are planning to remove playground equipment due to a new regulation that would require her to spend about $2,000 per year on mulch.
 
Hunter is part of the group of providers, business leaders and parents on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care. They’re expected to release recommendations in November on how Vermont could change its child care system.
 
She worries that the regulations, which are aimed at improving child care quality, will lower quality instead as providers cut back on program offerings. The “crisis” of declining child care options, she said, will continue.
 
“We know the system’s broken beyond belief,” Hunter said.
 
This article was first published online Tuesday, May 31, 2016. Contact April Burbank at 802-660-1863 or aburbank@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/AprilBurbank.
 

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