Advocates urge focus on quality child care

When Kimberly Rodríguez’s daughter could no longer go to the child-care center that closed at Ibero-American Action League last year, the Michigan native was devastated.

It had been a blessing for the young, working mother to be able to enroll her 3-year-old daughter in such a high-quality program from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. And though her daughter was able to transition into Ibero’s Head Start class, Rodríguez said that she still had to find before and after care for Kylee, since Head Start only runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"It’s a mess," Rodríguez said of the situation. "But you do what you have to do. I have to work no matter what."

Helping families who find themselves in similar straits is why the diocesan Public Policy Committee chose child care as an advocacy issue for 2012-13. Last month, parishioners throughout the 12-county diocese signed petitions, which will be presented to state officials in March, urging the governor and state Legislature to invest $300 million in child-care subsidies in support of quality child care for low-income families. As of March 8, 8,462 petitions had been signed, according to Mercy Sister. Janet Korn, diocesan coordinator of mission and outreach. The petition states that such investment is warranted for three reasons:

* The first years of a child’s life are crucial to healthy development of intellect, personality and social skills.

* Investment in quality child care leads to proven benefits for the child, the family and the community.

* The state will save money since every dollar invested in high-quality child care returns at least $7 in tax savings due to the need for fewer services, such as special education.

"For us parents … we really need child care. And other (child-care) places have really ridiculous prices that we can’t afford," Rodríguez noted. "And it’s not just day-care; it’s a school. They have taught my daughter more than I could have because I don’t have the time for it. (Child-care) is just very important."

Fewer than 40 percent of Monroe County’s working families who are eligible for child-care subsidies receive this assistance, according to information provided by the Public Policy Committee. In 2002, 12,261 children were receiving subsidies. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 7,493.

The application and recertification process for receiving subsidies at the county level is so cumbersome that it’s no wonder families who qualify are not receiving them, said Ida Pérez, Ibero’s early childhood coordinator. When most of the families in the agency’s child-care center on Clifford Avenue ran into road blocks — such as a lack of notification to the parents or the agency even when subsidies were approved — the center ran out of money to operate, Pérez explained. And the families could not afford to pay the for child-care services on their own, she said.

New York state was named by the National Association of Child Care as the least affordable state for center-based infant care with an average cost of $14,000 per year, said Brigit Hurley, a policy analyst with the Children’s Agenda. Locally, the average day-care cost for one child from a single-parent family is about $11,000 per year, according to http://cost-of-living.findthedata.org/l/406/Rochester-NY.

"What we’re really focusing on is low-income levels, families who are above poverty … but who are not able to afford $8,000 to $10,000" in annual child-care costs, Hurley said. "(Parents) are faced with the choice of getting a job or taking their 9-month-old out of a center where they are in a stimulating environment and receiving quality care to grandma’s or a neighbor."

Ibero was able to continue offering early childhood services because the agency receives federal grants for its Head Start and universal prekindergarten programs, said Pérez, who added that other child-care centers were forced to close because of a loss of subsidies.

"We’ve been able to survive, but a lot of other day-care centers are struggling really, really hard," Pérez remarked.

Centers have closed in the Rochester area and outlying counties because declines in state aid forced them to slash child-care subsidies, concurred Kathy Dubel, a member of the diocesan Public Policy Committee and justice-and-peace director for Catholic Charities of Chemung, Schuyler and Tioga counties.

"Several child-care providers have closed their doors because they simply could not cover operating costs with the loss of children whose families were no longer able to send them and pay for care," she said in an e-mail. "This certainly does not help the local economy when small businesses go under."

At the Child Care Community Center, 98 percent of the families receive subsidies for their children’s care, explained Judy Prevratil, a center school board member. While families do contribute on a sliding scale based on their income, any cuts in government funding have a dramatic impact on the center, she added.

Currently, 48 children are enrolled, which is fewer than in years past and may have to do with guidelines that Monroe County imposed in recent years, she said, because of state cuts in child-care funding. Declining enrollment also may be a result of child-care subsidy cuts for parents going to school, Prevratil added, noting that the county also stopped paying on a per-diem basis for half-day services.

Families with adults who are working, but are earning lower incomes, might qualify for a day-care subsidy, according to information at http://www2.monroecounty.gov/hs-daycare.php. Changes in state funding, however, have necessitated changes in eligibility levels qualifying for subsidy, the site states. An e-mail seeking comment from Monroe County was not returned before press time March 8.

"You can understand with the economy the way it is, but it makes it difficult for a day-care center like us that is dependent on government help," Prevratil said of the changes. "(The process) sounds fair but it doesn’t help. We still have to run our infrastructure."

The center opened 50 years go to provide cultural and educational enrichment for city children whose families are not able to provide such opportunities themselves, Prevratil noted, pointing to field trips as an example.

"We give a lot of support to families and clue them if their child is misbehaving or something is going wrong," she said.

Sarah Davis can attest to that support, as the center staff helped her in ways big and small. They potty trained her son and were there for her when she was going through cancer treatment, she said.

"The director believes that if you nurture a tree, the fruit will be well off," Davis said. "You take care of the child and the parent will do well."

When she was laid off from her previous job, Davis paid to keep her son in child care so that she could look for work. She now has a seasonal job at H&R Block, and Davis said she also has returned to school to finish a degree she began in 2007.

Through the ups and downs of finding a way to pay for her son’s care, the center has worked with her to make sure he is in good hands while she strives for a better life for her family, Davis said.

"We are mothers trying to get ourselves together and doing so with our hands tied behind our backs," she said. "For the economy to get better in Rochester, we need to support these mothers."

Child-care advocates, center staff and parents agreed that dire consequences will result from a failure to provide providing access to quality child care for the area’s children. Research has proven that center-based child care not only improves educational outcomes down the road but also that it’s cheaper to invest in a child’s development early rather than later in their school careers, Hurley said.

"Quality care early on sets them off on a different trajectory," she said.

Practically speaking, a mother who can’t enroll her child in a quality program might worry about the child and be distracted in her job, which affects her employer, Davis noted. She also might have to miss work because she doesn’t have a safe place to leave her child, which could increase the workload for her coworkers, Davis added.

And if mothers no longer can afford care, they may be forced to stop working altogether, which would mean fewer people contributing to the tax base, Hurley said.

"Unfortunately, these young mothers want to do right and have a good life. I’m trying. Help me out," Davis said. "We want to be responsible citizens in the community."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the diocesan Public Policy Committee’s position on child-care funding, visit www.dor.org/index.cfm/catholic-charities/public-policy/child-care.

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