Feb 28, 2018

Long waits, lacking subsidies challenge providers & families

Mark Zammuto and his wife, Shayla, moved from Burlington to Colchester last year, just one day after their son was born. It was a hectic week, he said with a laugh, but worth the chaos.

“Colchester is awesome. The people, the schools, the recreation. It’s got everything you could want,” Zammuto said. “Well, I’d say almost everything.”

The quest to find child care tops the list of novel topics Zammuto, a career coach at Champlain College, never seriously considered before becoming a father.

He knew, perhaps better than most, that parents need to start searching early if they want to secure a slot in Vermont: Shayla works as a regional field officer for Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide child care advocacy group.

Still, the couple came up empty when they tried to find placement in one of Colchester’s nearly two-dozen registered programs that would be available when their baby was born.

Zammuto is thrilled with the care his now 15-month-old son receives at Puddle Jumpers Childcare in Shelburne, but getting to the site is a daily haul he once hoped his family could avoid.

“In order to find a spot for high quality, affordable childcare, you basically need to start looking before you find out you’re pregnant,” Zammuto said. “That’s the timeline.”

Early Years Child Development Center, a licensed program on Main Street in Colchester, currently has a yearlong waiting list for placement in their infant room. They field about 10 calls per week inquiring about openings.

The lack of availability can be shocking to parents, EYCDC director Julie Brigante said, many of whom ask to enroll their infant within a few weeks.

More often than not, the baby they once sought care for is already a toddler by the time space opens up, Brigante said.

“I tell [expectant parents], ‘tell your mom and then call me,’” Brigante said.

A Let’s Grow Kids report released last month confirms the anecdotal experiences of parents and providers across the state. The study, “Stalled at the Start 2018,” found more than half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to any regulated child care programs.

Seventy-seven percent of the same population does not have access to high-quality programs — sites that have earned a four or five-star recognition through the state’s Step Ahead Recognition System, LGK said.

“We are really not doing well by our kids here in the state,” LGK campaign director Robyn Freedner-Maguire said. “The reason why this alarming shortage exists is because the state is not investing enough money in our child care and our children. That has got to change.”

LGK is calling on the state to close the $9.2 million funding gap in Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program, a sliding tuition subsidy scale usually determined by household income.

The subsidy rates have barely increased in the last five years, according to LGK, and are currently based on what it cost to offer child care in 2008. In other words, the funds it provides to needy families are often not in line with what providers charge in today’s market.

A 100 percent subsidy, for example, is unlikely to cover the full cost of tuition at virtually any program in the state. The resulting gap between what the state pays and what the provider charges can be financially difficult or impossible for eligible families to cover, LGK says, leaving children without access to care.

Brigante often finds ways to cover the difference herself, rather than send affected families away. As a result, however, her personal paycheck has taken a hit several times in the 20 years she’s owned a program.

The monetary drain also affects her ability to attract and retain skilled employees with a competitive salary and benefits package.

“I see my teachers struggling,” Brigante said. “I have guilt every day that I walk in this building that I cannot take care of my staff and honor them for the work that they do with the financial capabilities that would actually behoove them.”

And while Brigante has no shortage of interested customers, it’s become increasingly difficult to staff the nine full-time positions she already has — let alone to expand her capacity to take in more kids.

Meanwhile, the child care crisis is not just affecting families with kids, Freedner-Maguire said. Middle-income households with two parents and two young children are spending 28 to 40 percent of their income on child care — more than the average family spends on food, housing or transportation, according to LGK research.

“The math just often does not work for families,” LGK’s Freedner-Maguire said. “Families are having to make very difficult choices.”

Zammuto said he and his wife have already discussed the financial viability of having a second child. Based on his preliminary calculations, paying child care tuition for two kids would cost more than the family’s mortgage payment.

The family may well save money, Zammuto said, if he or his wife became a stay-at-home parent in that scenario. But as a job coach by trade, Zammuto said he’s intimately familiar with the damaging effect a multi-year pause can have on a working adult’s professional trajectory, let alone the statewide economic impact.

“That’s a regrettable understanding,” Zammuto said. “Vermont needs its professionals to keep working.”

Brigante said she would not make the same financial decisions if she headed up almost any other business, much to her accountant’s chagrin. Still, she counters, child care is unlike almost any other business in the world.

“People who become child care providers care very much about young kids,” Freedner-Maguire said, agreeing it’s a unique business. “But the system should not be balanced on the backs of our childcare providers and our parents.”

Click here to read this story on the Colchester Sun website. 

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