Study: Vermont parents seek quality child care, often to no avail
A new report by the non-profit organization Building Bright Futures suggests that Vermont parents are making tough choices when it comes to child care: basing their work hours on child care availability, cobbling together different child care arrangements and trying to stretch dollars to pay for care.
None of the findings is likely to come as a surprise.
Still, the new data are valuable both because they reinforce what other evidence suggests and because they come directly from parents of young children. The report reveals the results of a statewide survey that asked parents about their child care arrangements, factors that contributed to those arrangements and perceptions of various child care options.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of conversation across the state on this topic,” said Carolyn Wesley, interim executive director of Building Bright Futures, a Williston-based public-private partnership that advocates for families with young children and advises the government on issues relating to child care. “In all those conversations, the actual practices and preferences of families have been a blind spot.”
Several key findings emerged from the survey, in which 583 households around the state participated.
First, the demand for child care may be greater than other data suggests. A full 80 percent of participating households reported that all parents in the household were working, in contrast with U.S. Census numbers that put the number around 70 percent for the same demographic, Wesley said.
Another important finding is that many parents are using more than one type of child care, a practice that suggests they may be struggling to find or pay for child care that fits their needs. About one quarter of survey respondents who regularly use child care reported that they utilize more than one type. For example, a family might use center-based care, the most commonly used child care arrangement, three days per week and rely on a family member for the other two days.
Additionally, about half of parents reported that the availability of child care affected how much they work.
That reality is particularly troubling in a state that’s struggling to fill jobs, Wesley said.
“We’ve had these anecdotal stories about families who are choosing between work and child care,” she said. The new report provides evidence that these stories speak to a larger trend, she added.
The report also highlights the child care affordability crisis. In spite of subsidies, scholarships and other types of support available for families, low-income households pay a substantially higher percentage of their income for child care than higher income households, according to the survey.
All of the findings ring true for Allison Colburn, executive director of the Child Care Center in Norwich, which serves 70 families with children between 6 months old and sixth grade. Colburn said demand chronically outstrips supply at the center — there’s currently a waiting list for every age level — and that parents routinely struggle to find child care that fits their financial needs and work schedules.
“A lot of parents determine what days to work based on what we can provide,” said Colburn, who is also on the Bright Futures council. “They’ll come to us and then they’ll go back to their employer and say ‘can I work Monday, Wednesday and Thursday?’ ” she said.
Affordability is also an issue affecting both families and child care providers, Colburn said. The Child Care Center offers scholarships for families who make too much to qualify for state subsidies but not enough to cover child care costs, and also utilizes a sliding fee scale. But balancing fees with expenses is a never-ending dilemma in the child care industry, she said. Among the biggest challenges is hiring and retaining good staff without the resources to compensate them fairly.
“We’re always doing the quality/affordability dance, so to speak,” said Colburn, who has worked at the center since 1982.
Affordability is the main reason Ashley and Drew Miraldi had to string together different child care arrangements for their daughter, 21-month-old Quinn. Living in Japan while Drew Miraldi was serving in the Army, the couple began making plans more than a year ago to move back to the Upper Valley, where they both grew up.
“We started looking for child care early on because I had heard through the rumor mill that it was a long wait practically every place,” said Ashley Miraldi, who works for the Veterans Administration. The couple put Quinn on five or six waiting lists at area child care centers and then waited nearly a year before the Child Care Center in Norwich informed them they had a full-time opening. If the wait had been any longer, they’d have had to come up with an alternate plan, Miraldi said.
And even when they did find a full-time spot for Quinn, financial considerations forced the Miraldis to reconsider. They ended up enrolling her just two days a week, leaning on Miraldi’s parents for a third day, and staggering their school and work schedules to cover the rest of the week. On Tuesdays, Drew, now a full-time student at the University of New Hampshire, is home with Quinn, and on Thursdays Ashley is home with her: Her employer agreed to alter her schedule so that she can work four 10-hour days.
All is well, Miraldi said, but it was a tense wait and remains a tough balancing act.
Along with underscoring the challenges families like the Miraldis face, the report reveals families’ perceptions of different types of child care arrangements. Center-based care, home-based care and care by a relative or friend all received high scores for being nurturing, while center-based care was viewed more favorably than other arrangements for educational preparedness and socialization and much lower than other arrangements for affordability and flexibility.
With 57-percent of surveyed parents utilizing center-based care, it’s important for providers and policy makers to know how families view these facilities, Wesley said.
Miraldi said she chose center-based care because she’d read that early socialization is essential for children. “It was really important to me that she had that,” she said.
And so far, Quinn’s experiences are exactly what Miraldi had hoped. “She’s thriving ... She’s so happy when I pick her up, and her language is really developing,” Miraldi said.
The results of the survey, which was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, were shared with the state Senate’s Committee on Health and Welfare last month and will be circulated among providers, advocacy groups and policymakers to complement previously gathered data, Wesley said.
People like Colburn, who wrestle with the issues firsthand, know they aren’t likely to see change overnight though.
“I’m discouraged that things have not changed more than they have in the past 30 or 40 years,” Colburn said. “I thought we’d be in a different place by now.”