Finding care isn’t child’s play in Clark County

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

Published:

 

Financial assistance available for parents

The state's Working Connections Child Care program helps families making at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level pay for child care while parents work. Families are responsible for a monthly co-payment, and the state pays the provider a set rate.

For those making up to 82 percent of the federal poverty level -- $19,932 per year for a family of four -- the family's co-pay is only $15 per month. But for families making just under 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $48,600 for a family of four -- the monthly co-pay is about $685.

About 56 percent of local providers, accounting for about 70 percent of total capacity, accept the subsidies, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington.

As soon as Marlene Julye moved to Clark County, she started the search for child care.

Julye moved here in late July while seven months pregnant. She wouldn’t need child care until February, but Julye had heard she needed to get on waiting lists early in order to have care when she needed it.

She Googled. She read Yelp reviews. She asked for recommendations on Facebook.

Finally, she found a place — a center in Fisher’s Landing. The center was great, she said, but it was expensive, $1,200 per month, and it wasn’t in a convenient location. Nevertheless, exhausted from searching, she put her name on the waiting list.

“It’s an amazing facility,” Julye said. “But it definitely was a settle for me.”

At the time, Julye felt she had few other options.

“I wanted a good place, but I needed something affordable,” Julye said. “And it seems like you can’t have both.”

She’s likely not alone in that feeling. Even as Clark County’s population continues to grow, the number of child care spots has declined while the cost of care now rivals that of housing.

Since early 2011, child care capacity has dropped 6 percent in Clark County. Statewide, capacity has declined about 1 percent since 2011, though it has started to increase over the last two years, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit organization that connects families with child care and early learning programs.

At the same time, the cost of care is rising.

In the last year, the statewide median cost for child care centers increased 5 to 6 percent for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The state median cost for infant care is currently $1,053 per month. In Clark County, it costs $1,062 per month. Only King, Snohomish and San Juan counties have higher infant care costs, according to the Child Care Aware data.

“For parents with moderate income, middle income, they get no support for care, and it can be as expensive as sending your kid to college,” said Frank Ordway, assistant director of the state Department of Early Learning. “The availability of affordable, quality care is a problem.”

Many kids, few spots

In 2015, about 29,600 children younger than 5 years old lived in Clark County, including 5,561 babies born that year.

Currently, licensed child care providers offer a maximum of 6,229 spots in Clark County for those 29,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The bulk of that capacity, 74 percent, is in child care centers.

County providers have a maximum capacity for 594 infants, 1,296 toddlers and 4,339 preschoolers, according to Child Care Aware data. The actual number of available spots, however, is significantly lower, due to duplication in age categories.

While state organizations monitor the number of providers and licensed child care spots, they don’t track how many of those slots are full. But state officials and local child care providers say that infant care is hard to come by, and finding toddler care isn’t much easier.

“We almost never have infant openings,” said Debra Anderson, who owns two Children’s Village centers in Vancouver.

Both the Burton Road and Salmon Creek facilities accept just eight infants. It’s not unusual for women to pay a deposit to hold a spot while they are still pregnant, Anderson said. Last month, they had a pregnant woman reserve a spot for January, she said.

“People do plan ahead for infants because they know it’s hard,” Anderson said. “The day a baby turns 1 (and moves to a toddler room), we are filling that spot.”

The eight infant spots at Cornerstone Christian Academy are also typically full, said Wendy Sparks, early childhood education director. A few spots recently opened up when several infants moved into the toddler room. But come September, when the new school year starts, every infant spot is reserved, Sparks said.

Part of the challenge with providing infant care at centers is the low child-to-teacher ratios required by the state. An infant room can have a maximum of eight children, and there must be one teacher for every four infants.

Compare that with ratios for older kids: one teacher for every seven toddlers, with a maximum of 14 kids per room, and one teacher for every 10 preschoolers 2 1/2 years and older. Preschool rooms can have a maximum of 20 kids.

State regulations also require more space for infants at centers: 50 square feet of usable floor space per infant. The state requires 35 square feet per child for older children.

Couple those requirements with the low subsidy rate from the state for families receiving financial assistance — the state pays $930 per infant in Clark County — and Anderson said she can’t afford to offer more than one infant room at each of her centers.

“We lose money on our infant program,” she said.

The situation is similar for toddler care at centers. The state subsidy rate is $775 per toddler in Clark County, while the local median cost is $888.

Anderson’s Children’s Village centers each have just one toddler room, each with room for 10 kids. They’re always full, but with 80 percent of the Burton Road facility’s children on state subsidies and 60 percent of the Salmon Creek kids, Anderson can’t afford to expand.

“It’s just not feasible to allocate much more space for them,” Anderson said.

Family home providers offer an alternative to centers, but they’re a considerably smaller piece of the overall capacity. Family child care homes account for 54 percent of Clark County providers, but they only make up 15 percent of the capacity.

The family home providers were hit harder by the recession, when fewer people needed care, Ordway said. At the same time, a nationwide shift away from in-home care to center-based providers began. That “perfect storm” led to many smaller providers closing, he said.

In the last five years, the number of family child care providers has declined by about 30 percent statewide, according to Child Care Aware.

Cost prohibitive

While just finding an open spot for an infant or toddler can be difficult, finding an affordable place makes the situation even more challenging.

When Clark County newcomer and new mom Marlene Julye’s circumstances changed, she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford the $1,200 per month tuition for her son’s care. Just a month before she was set to return to work, Julye was once again looking for infant care.

A co-worker recommended Julye check out the YMCA. She called one center, but it was full. Another location, however, had one infant opening. She toured the facility and had to make a decision on the spot.

“If I didn’t pay the $50 (deposit) in that moment, I was going to lose it,” she said.

The monthly tuition at the YMCA is about $900. Julye also qualified for a scholarship to bring the cost down more.

“I got lucky with the YMCA,” she said.

The median cost of infant care at child care centers is about 21 percent of the median household income in Clark County. Family home providers offer a more affordable option — the median rate is $758 per month — but even that accounts for 15 percent of the median income.

With child care costing as much as college tuition, the state is concerned about where families who can’t afford care turn. For some, the answer is unlicensed providers, Ordway said. But there are risks.

Recently, the state discovered an unlicensed provider who had a registered sex offender living in the home. At another unlicensed provider’s home, six infants were discovered unattended in an upstairs room, Ordway said.

“When they go into the underground market, they may think they’re leaving their child with the grandma down the street, but grandma may have a registered sex offender living there,” he said.

But with raising care costs, families are forced to make tough choices, Ordway said.

Thin margins

Sparks, at Cornerstone Christian Academy, hates to see families struggle, but the center has to cover its costs in order to stay open. As operating costs go up, so too must rates. The recent minimum wage increase in Washington and the requirement to provide health insurance for employees prompted Cornerstone to increase its rates this year, Sparks said.

“Those two were a double whammy and, unfortunately, our families have to feel the pinch for that,” she said.

Anderson had to increase rates at her Children’s Village centers this year, too. She had to counter the minimum wage increase and the new paid sick leave law, which will cost Children’s Village about $32,000, she said.

“We raised rates pretty significantly in January because minimum wage went up,” Anderson said. “And we’ll have to do it again next January because we have another 50 cent bump, plus the sick leave policy.”

The increased costs are especially tough to counter since the majority of Anderson’s families are receiving subsidized care. While those subsidy rates did increase in 2014 and 2016, they haven’t kept up with costs, she said.

That fact isn’t lost on state officials.

“The rates that we provide for those who provide subsidized care, the combination of the federal and state dollars that make up that rate for infant care, is typically well below the market rate,” Ordway said.

“Reform in the rates that we pay folks is going to be necessary to stabilize the market,” he said.

The Department of Early Learning asked the Legislature to fund increases in subsidy rates for family home providers and child care centers. The state has asked a lot of providers in the way of increased training and regulations to ensure children are in safe and enriching environments, Ordway said.

“Providers have stepped up,” he said, “and the state needs to meet them halfway.”

In addition, the state department hopes to reinvest in provider recruitment and retention efforts, funding for which has dwindled over the years. As those dollars disappeared, so too did the number of providers in the state, Ordway said.

Finally, the department hopes to see the Legislature pass an early learning facility bill, which would allow providers to apply for grants and loans to expand their facilities and increase capacity, Ordway said.

Until a solution is found, however, families will continue to struggle to afford quality care, Sparks said.

“It’s a shame,” she said, “because our littlest population, they’re the ones that won’t have that experience of quality early education.”