Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 28, 2013

The quest for quality child care

Area parents face obstacles in finding child care for their children.

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

— Five years ago, a mom-to-be armed with an Excel spreadsheet and a list of addresses set out on a quest to find a child care provider for her soon-to-be-born baby girl.

“Researching and trying to find the best place was important and terrifying,” Kokomo mom Allison Toren said.

She called Bona Vista’s Child Care Solutions and developed a list of places she wanted to see.

Then she either called them or made visits and logged her observations in a spreadsheet.

She still has that paper today.

Next to one provider, she wrote the words, “Not impressed. Workers seemed immature.”

Another received higher marks. Under impressions, it said, “Very nice, Christian influence.”

She visited 11 places that ranged in price from $95 a week to $150 a week.

She wasn’t set on any of them.

Then she decided to drop in and visit the staff at Little Lambs Childcare on Goyer Road.

“Interestingly, Little Lambs wasn’t on the list,” she said. “I did an unannounced walk-in and fell in love. Once I found Little Lambs, I didn’t look anywhere else… They have an unquantifiable element – I know they love my children.”

Toren knows she’s lucky. She said so herself.

She and her husband were able to enroll their daughter without wait, which is unusual for Little Lambs, she said. And five years later, they haven’t had any issues with the provider.

Other families aren’t so lucky. The search for child care is often a bumpy road.

“We’ve had families come to us in tears, whether it be financial concerns, concerns over leaving their child with a stranger, or they may have had a bad experience,” said Michelle Kanable, program director for the Child Care Solutions referral service on Buckeye Street in downtown Kokomo.

The staff members there specialize in helping parents in 10 counties find suitable child care for their kids.

They keep a running list of licensed and registered providers who have no pending complaints against them. As soon as the state finds something “fishy” with a provider, that provider is temporarily cut from the list, said outreach specialist Lindsey Davison.

In that past three years, there have been 13 complaints filed against eight child care providers in Howard County, according to the state’s database. Several providers were cited for not following a discipline policy or using inappropriate discipline. Several complaints alleged that providers left kids unattended. One facility didn’t report suspected child abuse or neglect. One complaint said a child was bitten in the two-year-old room. One didn’t use appropriate booster seats on a field trip.

The latest complaint was from March of this year. All of them have since been resolved, according to the database.

Child Care Solutions adds providers back to the list once complaints are resolved.

Some parents call in and only want that list of providers who are in good standing.

Others want the women at Child Care Solutions to come along on site visits and help ask questions.

Allison Hillis, inclusion specialist, once went on a site visit with a family with a special needs child. She helped the parents ask questions and stayed afterward to train the provider on what the child would need.

“We offer as much hand holding as the parents would like,” Kanable said.

Some families want something they can’t have, though.

One family knew they wanted a child care facility rated a level three on the state’s Paths to Quality rating system. A level three means the provider uses a curriculum to get kids ready for school.

The parents worked a later shift, though, and needed someone who provided 24-hour care.

Kanable said there are only 6 homes and one child care center in Howard County that stay open 24 hours. And none of those are a level three on the Paths to Quality rating system.

According to Indiana Youth Institute data, there aren’t even enough licensed child care slots for all of the county’s children.

In 2011, there were only 25 licensed spots for every 100 children.

The numbers in surrounding counties are even bleaker.

In Miami County, there were 5.1 licensed child care spots per 100 kids in 2011. In Tipton County, that number was zero.

Kanable said that isn’t surprising.

“In rural areas, there are a lot of unregulated providers,” she said.

But access isn’t the only obstacle families face, and it may not even be the biggest one.

Kanable said there has been an influx of Howard County parents searching for child care along the trolley routes in town.

Their selection is slim, she said. Often times, parents are forced to walk 10 blocks from the trolley station to the facility.

“If they have transportation issues, it can be difficult,” she said.

But the biggest issue, by far, is money. Child care is expensive.

In many cases, it’s a family’s second biggest expense. The only thing more expensive is their mortgage, Child Care Solutions Infant and Toddler Specialist Amy Healton said.

And the price issue is one that spans all socioeconomic classes, she said.

Toren and her family grappled with that issue.

Last year, they enrolled their now- two-year-old in daycare along with their 4-year-old daughter.

Daycare was expensive for one child, so Toren wasn’t sure at first they could afford the second.

Her husband is a pastor, and she works at Indiana Wesleyan University.

They now spend $12,000 a year on child care.

“It’s not like we’re bringing in $250,000,” she said. “It’s not a drop in the bucket for us… It did cause me to balk and rethink why I work… Being a working mom is a tension.”

Kanable said the reality is that many parents can’t afford to stay at home with their children anymore.

There are safety nets for some low-income parents. Indiana has set up a Child Care Development Fund that distributes vouchers for child care.

But in most cases, fewer area children are getting those vouchers than ever before. In 2011, 731 Howard County children received the vouchers, according to Indiana Youth Institute data. That’s down from 993 in 2008. Meanwhile, the childhood poverty rate in the county increased.

In Miami County, the number of children receiving vouchers went from 207 in 2008 to 153 in 2011.

In both counties, the number of children on a wait list for the vouchers each month increased substantially.

It nearly tripled in four years in Howard County. It went from 119 in 2008 to 308 in 2011. In Miami County, it went from 41 to 87, according to the data.

Families who don’t qualify, who are on a waiting list for vouchers or lose their eligibility can be put in a tight spot said Indiana Youth Institute CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz.

“It can be a cliff for that family,” he said. “There’s no simple solution for that.”

But people assume that because child care is so expensive, providers are rolling in money, staff at Child Care Solutions said.

Industry reports prove otherwise.

The 2010 Indiana Child Care Workforce Study found that child care workforce wages were markedly low despite increases since 2005. The median hourly wage for program directors was $14.77. And the median wage for teachers was $9 an hour.

Fifty-five percent of licensed child care center and registered ministry directors reported they didn’t help employees pay for health insurance.

Jill Russell, a level four licensed home provider In Kokomo, said she tries to keep her rates affordable for families even if it means she will never get rich.

She said her weekly rates for child care have only increased by $14 in the last 19 years.

And Russell reminds parents from time to time that she doesn’t baby sit. Parents could find a teenager willing to baby sit for $10 an hour.

The care Russell provides goes far beyond that. She’s providing a curriculum that’s on par with what kids would learn at a preschool, she said.

“I’m very serious about my job,” she said. “I don’t sit on babies. I stopped doing that after high school.”

The staff at Child Care Solutions said quality child care is the most important community issue that never gets talked about.

They are trying to bring it to the forefront here, especially in the rural counties.

They are reaching out to community leaders in Tipton and Miami counties. Their hope is help some of the unregulated providers there become licensed by the state. They would also love to help people start child care businesses there, they said.

“We would like to build that supply up for families,” Kanable said.

She said Child Care Solutions would like to see the community come up with more creative solutions to the cost issue.

In other areas, businesses sponsor child care discounts for employees. Or sometimes a business will rent one of their buildings to a child care provider for $1 a month, so the provider can cut costs and offer cheaper rates.

Maybe one day, child care centers will receive more support from the state, too.

Indiana Sen. Travis Holdman said he could see the state’s Paths to Quality rating system becoming the foundation for early childhood education here, especially if the state department of education doesn’t want to take it over.

Stanczykiewicz said he hadn’t thought about that possibility.

He said the overarching goal of the Paths to Quality system is to promote child care facilities that foster healthy youth development in all areas – including education.

“It’s an intriguing idea,” he said. “People are spending a lot of time working on this issue. The last big, unplowed ground in Indiana is early childhood education.”

Davison said a little state support would be welcomed. She would love to see every child of working parents enrolled in a quality program that would capitalize on that child’s early brain development.

“We want to give them a head start while they still have a fighting chance,” she said.