Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Suburban struggle: Where to find child care

Economic boom, working couples fuel overflow

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Donald and Regina Wagers aren't track stars, but each day they pass off the family car keys like runners handing off batons. The Hamilton couple works opposite shifts and spends less than an hour a day together during the week for three reasons — their children.

        The lack of child care providers to watch their three youngest kids, ages 8 to 11, forces Mrs. Wagers to work from pre-dawn to early afternoon before her husband leaves at 3.

        “I know (Butler County) Human Services has (a list) of day-care providers, but the home providers are few and far between and the ones that are close enough are full,” Mrs. Wagers said.

        The Wagers family is not alone. While child care shortages are familiar to some families in Cincinnati, changes in the suburban counties are leaving a growing number of parents lying awake at night with this gnawing question: Who will care for our children?

        Three factors have increased the strain on families in outlying areas, from Warren County to Northern Kentucky, in finding child care they can both afford and trust:

        • Professional families are moving in droves to suburban counties, competing for limited child-care slots.

        • Welfare reform has pushed more parents into the workplace and their children into child care.

        • A booming economy and low unemployment translate into a shortage of child-care workers.

        This all amounts to stressful decisions for parents faced with difficult — or no — choices.

        “We know, looking at the numbers, there are a lot of children in unhealthy, unsafe situations,” said Jeffrey Diver, chairman of the Butler County Child Care Coalition. The coalition found that while the county has enough full-day and after-school programs for 6,700 children, more than seven times as many kids live in a home with a single parent or two working parents. Mr. Diver and others worry about the care the rest are getting.

        Their concern comes at a time when studies show a child's education, and safety, hinge on the type of early care received. Just last week results of a national, four-year study of young children found that those in low-quality care tend to have poorer language and math skills.

        Grass-roots organizations in the region and throughout the state are trying to find solutions.

        “I don't think it is an exaggeration to say we're in a crisis situation with the lack of affordable and accessible child care,” Mr. Diver said.

One family's struggle
        Heather Gast has spent the last five months on the phone. In February, the 29-year-old mother began searching through the Internet Yellow Pages for day-care spots in Warren County for her two sons. Then last week two spaces unexpectedly opened at the Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA in Lebanon.

        Mrs. Gast and her family, who moved to Clearcreek Township from the Dayton area in April for her job at a computer software company, consider themselves lucky.

        “I know people who are on lists for a year,” Mrs. Gast said. “To find day care out here is unbearable. To find quality care along with the price is hard in the area you need it.”

        The other centers the Gasts considered in Mason were too expensive, charging $300 a week for both children. The Gasts pay $187 a week at the YMCA.

        “I'd love to be able to pay that kind of money ($300) for the kids, but it's outrageous. When you have more than one kid, most of your paycheck goes to day care,” she said.

        Other families are desperate for day care in the Lebanon area. At the YMCA, about 100 names make up the waiting list, vying for one of the 150 spots in the center, said Carol Hughes, the YMCA's program executive.

        But the YMCA has no intention of expanding for fear the quality of the care would drop. Yet someone must move in to fill the need.

        In Batavia in Clermont County, the waiting list at New Beginnings Child Care has doubled the past two years to 60, said director Kathy Tincher.

        New Beginnings recently hired a consultant to figure out how to prepare for growing demand.

        Other centers have already taken action. In northern Warren County, the Day Academy in Springboro is doubling in size to 10,000 square feet.

        But two months before the addition's doors open, the new 68 spots are already filled and another 97 names make up the waiting list.

        “We know that for some kids, when we don't have room for them, they are home alone,” said Debbie Mickey, the academy's administrator. She doesn't expect the center to have an opening for another year.

        “When they call, they need care now,” she said of parents. “They don't always tell me what they're going to do. They just sound hopeless. It kills me.”

Low income, few choices
        When Kelli Dunson left welfare and started her job last February, public assistance officials promised help with day-care costs if she went to a center on their list of certified providers.

        No way, she replied.

        “I wasn't comfortable with that,” she said. “I could see if they were willing to help with someone I approved. But it's different with someone the system approves of.”

        Because the Hamilton mom did not trust day-care workers she didn't know, Ms. Dunson, 29, left the three children with her mother while she worked afternoons and evenings. After Ms. Dunson's mother left for work at night, the oldest child, 14, watched the other two, 7 and 2 for up to an hour until Ms. Dunson returned home.

        Ms. Dunson wasn't happy leaving her children alone even for a short time, but felt she had no choice. Now the children's aunts watch them.

        Lucinda Day, a Lebanon single mother of three boys, left welfare five years ago when the state told her to find a job or attend college. She took computer programming classes and later a job at the Countryside YMCA day-care center. The 34-year-old mom pays a total of $70 a month for child care for her two youngest boys, 11 and 8, but says her choices are choked because of her benefits.

        “They insist on a place on the way to where you work or go to school,” Ms. Day said. “It doesn't even matter the quality of it as long as it's convenient.”

        Low-income families often have the least choice of all.

        “There's no question the demand is greater because more parents have to work to make ends meet, and with welfare reform, even more parents have to work and they don't have a choice,” said Eileen Cooper Reed, director and advocate of the Children's Defense Fund-Greater Cincinnati Project, the local office of the national nonprofit research agency.

        State subsidies for low-income families help ease the child-care burden. However, not all day-care centers take them because they lose money if the voucher does not cover the whole cost, paid partly by the state and the rest by the family based on its income.

        Families in low-wage jobs know the problem is not just money. Many work nights and weekends, when traditional day-care centers are closed.

        The Jack & Jill Early Learning Center in Florence is a rare gem. It began offering day care in the evening more than seven years ago. The center was immediately slammed with requests from as far away as Norwood.

        “We were going for 10-15 (customers) and we took on 45,” said Brian Dyer, the owner. “It was overwhelming.”

Competition for workers
        While much of the statewide focus on improving access to child care has been on subsidies for families, a major problem remains with the workers.

        In a strong economy, the industry has a hard time attracting high-quality child-care assistants, who can make more money at a fast-food restaurant.

        “It's a dichotomy because, at a time when we most need child care, we are finding the most critical shortage in workers, and it's due to low wages,” said Chris Humphrey, manager of community resources and government relations for Comprehensive Community Child Care in Cincinnati.

        The agency is a nonprofit referral system that serves Butler, Warren, Clermont, Hamilton and Clinton counties in Ohio and Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Northern Kentucky.

        A recent survey by a lobbying group for YMCAs in Ohio found:

        • The average starting hourly wage of the highest paid lead teachers in YMCA day care centers is $7.43. Most teachers have just a GED or high school diploma.

        • The turnover rate is about 73 percent within a two-year period.

        • The average starting hourly wage for assistant teachers is $6.41. About 28 percent have some college experience, while turnover is 69 percent in a two-year period.

        Donna McDaniel of Lebanon knows both the problem of finding day care, and getting by on its low wages.

        Eighteen months ago, she and her husband, Fred, lost their state child-care subsidies after Mrs. McDaniel received a 75-cent hourly raise at her job at the Countryside YMCA day care, where she is now assistant director.

        They faced paying $300 a week in child care for their three children, up from $300 a month. Finally, Mr. McDaniel quit his job as a plumber and took another job working the midnight shift so the two could swap child-care responsibilities.

        “I remember many nights tossing and turning, going through the phone book, calling all my friends, "Can you watch the baby,' not knowing if you're going to be able to go to work the next day because you don't have day care,” Mrs. McDaniel said. “Something has to change. Something has to give somewhere.”

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