Parents face child care shortage in Windham County
WINDHAM COUNTY — Clare Barboza feels lucky to have found child care for her 4-year-old son.
"When we first arrived in Vermont, we found a temporary child-care situation," Barboza told the Reformer. "My son wasn't in preschool yet but we needed something. Then they sort of pulled the rug out from under us with no warning after a few months. We were given no notice or anything."
Now they are all set, enrolled at Wonder in the Woods in Dummerston.
Unfortunately, about 73 percent of infants likely to need child care in Windham County do not have access to any regulated programs and 83 percent do not have access to high-quality care, according to the 2018 Stalled at the Start report compiled by Let's Grow Kids. The statewide public awareness and advocacy campaign is meant to educate the public about such issues.
The report says Vermont continues to face a critical child care shortage: 51 percent of infants and toddlers in the state probably need care but cannot get into regulated programs and 77 percent do not have access to high-quality care. Its authors used the Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, to determine quality programs. Those with four or five stars are deemed high quality.
STARS is the quality recognition system for child care, preschool and afterschool programs in Vermont, according to the state's Department of Children and Families website.
Barboza was shocked when she learned the reality behind statistics in the report. Coming from Seattle, she also was surprised see the cost of living here is similar. She works as a photographer with studios in both Seattle and Brattleboro. She finds available work here versus local price tags "really out of balance."
"It's been an eye-opening experience from that perspective," she said.
Barboza met a representative of Let's Grow Kids, who pointed her in the direction of a new child-care program that ended up being a perfect fit for her family.
Billie Slade, director of Wonder in the Woods, opened the nature-and-play-based early childhood program about one year ago in response to what she sees as "the overwhelming need for more high-quality programs for young children" around the county. After living in Wisconsin for 30 years, she moved back home to Vermont in 2012 to take on the job of executive director of Green Mountain Camp.
The childcare program runs during the school year and the camp is in the summer. Both use the same property, which includes 13 acres of woods and meadows. The camp is for girls.
Slade previously served as a mentor in the Vermont Birth To Five program, which provides support via networking, professional development and shared services. Its mission is to "ensure every Vermont child has access to high quality and affordable early care and education by 2025."
Slade witnessed parents frustrated by the lack of quality care and the limited number of spaces in programs.
"Although the quality rating system of STARS is one indicator of quality, parents are encouraged to spend time in a program to see if it is a place that they would want to spend their days as not every program is a good fit for every child," she said. "Some parents felt that they couldn't have the 'luxury' of choosing the program that would best meet their families needs because even if they could find a spot in a program they were happy with, the cost is a huge obstacle. The dilemma is twofold with both accessibility and affordability being stumbling blocks for parents, even with subsidy from the state."
Slade said she also saw frustrations among child-care providers who struggled to making a living as regulations increased and demands on them became more challenging.
"Some programs were closing their doors and not enough new ones were opening to meet the demand, creating an even larger problem," she said.
It is not just an overload of paperwork driving people out of the industry. A living wage can be hard to find among employers.
"It's really difficult to making a living doing child care," said Slade, noting a disparity between paychecks disparity between college educators, child-care providers and the teachers in between. "It's frustrating to me that we don't seem to respect the work that we should. It really is instrumental in who these kids become if they have a solid start, a solid beginning."
Slade said she has two part-time employees who she pays "way more than other places do" because of the way she values the profession.
"Science tells us that the first five years are the most important years in a child's life for healthy brain development," the report says. "It's a time when the brain is creating its foundation for learning and development, forming more than one million new neural connections every second. This is a big leap from previous findings that had estimated that young children were forming 700 to 1,000 new connections every second, and further highlights just how important healthy development is for children during their earliest years."
The report also notes how high-quality, affordable child care is "essential to supporting gender equality in the workplace."
"When women leave the workforce because they can't find child care, they lose not only their annual salary, but also health insurance, the ability to save for retirement and possible wage increases over time," the report says. "Research has shown that women, more than men, take on primary caregiving responsibilities, especially when families face challenges accessing child care. According to a national survey of individuals with at least an honors-level undergraduate degree, 74 percent of women who voluntarily left the workforce reported child care as being the primary factor for their decision, compared to only 26 percent of men."
Barboza hopes to support the Let's Grow Kids initiative to improve child-care access.
"It's a complicated issue," she said. "There's a lack of balance for sure. So I mean, hopefully some things will change in the future and there will be more options for working parents that are good and still affordable."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.