Child care in a downswing

With a sour economy, enrollment has plunged, state subsidies have been cut, providers have closed

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

Orchards resident Sandi Lindsey-Tremble had made a living for 17 years from her home-based child care business, Sandi’s Day Care. By June 2010, an exodus of customers affected by the recession had forced her and her employee, Saundra Massey, to find second jobs.

“We used to stay full at 12 kids,” Lindsey-Tremble said. “Within the last two years, it’s slowly dropped. Now we stay within four to seven kids. That’s not enough to make ends meet.”

Lindsey-Tremble has fared better than dozens of other Clark County child care providers, who have had to close their doors. As parents have experienced layoffs or furloughs and the state has slashed child care subsidies for low-income families, child care centers and home-based child care businesses have emptied out. Some providers have closed. Others are attempting to weather the economic downturn by working second jobs and relaxing their admission policies and prices.

“Due to the economy, parents don’t have jobs or have only part-time jobs, so they are not demanding child care in the way they were, and some programs can’t fill their slots,” said Jodi Wall, director of child care and early learning at Educational Service District 112.

Since January, Clark County has lost 36 child care businesses and 307 child care slots that could not be filled, according to Washington Child Care Resource & Referral Network.

“(The enrollment) is really a pendulum swing,” said Kristi Baker, director of ESD 112’s Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium. “It goes along with what’s happening in society and the economy.”

The livelihoods of providers follow the same path.

Lindsey-Tremble is one of the lucky ones because she’s been able to cobble together a living. Each weekday, she cares for children at her home-based business from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then works her second job from 6 to 11 p.m. at Southwest Washington Learning Center in Hazel Dell.

“It’s a very long day, but I have to be able to make ends meet,” she said.

Her employee, Massey, also works at the Hazel Dell center to supplement her income because Lindsey-Tremble had to cut back on Massey’s hours to keep Sandi’s Day Care in operation.

Massey, who has worked for Lindsey-Tremble for 11 years, was previously full time at Sandi’s Day Care. Now she puts in just three to four hours two to three days per week there. Her husband, who works during the day, takes care of their two school-age sons during those evening hours.

Kathy Van Delden, owner of ABC’s, 123’s Day Care, Preschool & Learning Center in Ridgefield, operated two child care centers two years ago. She had to close a Hazel Dell location because of dampened demand and cuts in state child care subsidies. Her surviving location in Ridgefield has lost more than two-thirds of its enrollment.

Subsidies cut

Part of the slipping enrollment stems from cuts in child care subsidies. The reductions have made it impossible for many families to afford child care.

When Vancouver resident Sarah Remington lost her state child care subsidy, she said she could no longer afford to pay for her 2-year-old son, Jacob, to go to Wendy’s Teddy Bear Day Care every day while she was at work.

“I thought there for a while I was going to have to quit my job until my boyfriend offered to help me out,” Remington said.

He agreed to watch Jacob three times per week. She worked out a deal with day care owner Wendy Patterson to pay for the other two days with a combination of cash and labor. Two times per month, Remington cleans the day care’s four restrooms in exchange for her son’s stay.

The state reduced spending on child care subsidies by $33 million between the 2010-11 biennium and this biennium. As a result, about 13,164 fewer families will be served, according to the state.

Before October, families with income of up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, about $37,060 for a family of three, were eligible for a child care subsidy. In October, eligibility was tightened to 175 percent of federal poverty level, about $32,427.

Thousands of families statewide became ineligible for child care subsidies as a result, and many of those who are still eligible saw their co-payment ratchet up. The state increased the monthly co-payment for all families that earn more than 82 percent of poverty level in March.

Some parents had their monthly co-payments increase from $50 to between $200 and $300, Baker said.

“Parents were having a hard time paying,” she said.

$163 per week

Those who are no longer eligible for a subsidy face an average child care cost of $163 per week for a child between 31 months and 5 years old, according to ESD 112’s Child Care Resource and Referral program. The cost averages about $135 per week for the same age group at a Clark County home-based child care provider. The prices are higher for younger children and infants.

“It’s hard. A lot of families are having a difficult time,” Lindsey-Tremble said. “There are more parents that work opposite shifts: The dad works during the day and the mom in the evening. Because the economy is in such disrepair, that’s the way it is. People can’t afford (child care) unless the state pays.”

Lindsey-Tremble said she has seen some single parents quit their jobs because they couldn’t afford the increased co-payment and had no other options for child care.

Even low-cost child care programs, such as ESD 112’s 26 child care centers in Clark County, have experienced shrinking enrollment.

For example, ESD 112’s center at Fruit Valley Elementary School lost 24.1 percent of its population last year. As a result, ESD 112 eliminated infant care at the center. The decline in enrollment also prompted ESD 112 to close child care centers at Barnes and Butler Acres elementary schools in Cowlitz County this year.

To help out families and to maintain business, some providers have done away with minimum-hour policies and relaxed other requirements.

In Orchards, Lindsey-Tremble of Sandi’s scrapped her policy to admit only children whose parents agreed to pay for a minimum of five hours of care per week.

“Now I’ll take a couple of hours per week,” she said.

The alternative is to lose the customer completely, she said.

Parents who can’t afford to pay withdraw their children from child care centers and patch together a child care plan with family, friends and neighbors.

“Sometimes they find neighbors; sometimes they are latch-key kids,” Baker said. “If one parents loses a job, that parent usually takes care of the kids. If they’re still working, they might be relying on family members to take care of kids.”

Van Delden of ABC’s, 123’s recently lost her house due to foreclosure and began working at a fast-food restaurant at night after her day care center closes to pay her bills.

“There are some months here when I don’t get any income from my center, but I love working with kids,” said Van Delden of ABC’s, 123’s. “It’s hard to leave that when that’s what I want to do.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.