Aug 2, 2016

Panel hears about link between child care, economic security

BURLINGTON — Athena Rork, a Winooski mother, remembers getting a distressing phone call at a time when her fledgling small business was breaking even and starting to grow.

“‘Your child care assistance has been cut off. In fact, it was cut off two months ago, so you owe two months,’” she recalls being told.

She turned to various people for help but was told there was nothing they could do. Her state child care subsidy had ended, and she had to cut her hours drastically to take care of her children, she said recently.

“It felt like the state of Vermont would rather me stay home with my kids instead of putting money back into the economy,” she said.

Rork was one of several people at a recent state forum who highlighted a lack of affordable child care in Vermont and the professional effects for parents, particularly young mothers, trying to build secure futures for their children.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care has been directed in statute to determine key points of child care standards and make suggestions to lawmakers on implementation. It is holding conversations that will be included as qualitative research in its reports and recommendations to the Legislature, due in November.

Last week the commission hosted a forum in Burlington where mothers, fathers, teachers and child care providers were among those who attended.

Currently, Vermont pays a portion of the cost of child care for eligible families, based on income. But many say that is not enough.

Like Rork, many at last week’s forum came with stories of experiences.

A single mother receiving her doctorate in medicine from the University of Vermont said she was not given the option of subsidized child care by the state because she was pursuing a post-bachelor degree.

Others focused on the economics from the perspective of providers, who say they don’t have enough money to provide the highest-quality care while making a livable profit for themselves and their families.

Colleen Christman, a child care provider and mother, said that when she calculated her salary after taxes, she realized she was making $4 an hour.

Christman’s business is rated four stars out of five for quality on the state’s system. She has a background in elementary education and said she began her business to stay home with her kids.

The issues the commission is addressing — quality and affordability — are not new. The complexity of the child care conversation dates back to the Nixon era, said Christman. Federal child care subsidies were cut in an effort to maintain the family structure, she said.

Nationally, there has been increased interest in access to child care, said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner at the Department for Children and Families, in a recent interview. She is a member of the commission, which includes representatives of the state agencies on education, administration and human services as well as parents, providers and others.

Vermont has become a forward-moving subcenter of the discussion on child care in America, said Murphy, who has worked in the field for 30 years.

The discussion is more than just a moment of reform but instead a doorway to continued progress, she said.

Some involved in the discussion say a shift in thinking about child care is needed: that providers are supplying a public service rather than a business convenience.

The president and CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA, Kyle Dodson, said money for this may come in conjunction with other progressive policies such as criminal justice reform. Budgeting more public money for things like child care could prevent the cycle of incarceration accompanied by poverty, he said.

In addition to the forums, the commission is conducting quantitative research to develop its recommendations. Public forums are held once a month.

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 18 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Details on the location and more information will be posted here.

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