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Improving child care access may require creativity

Improving child care access may require creativity

February 18th, 2018 by Rebecca Martin in Local News

Complicated problems often require creative solutions.

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More than half of Missouri's children lack affordable access to child care

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For families whose situations aren't served by available child care options, that's often the case.

"When someone's really frustrated, it's easy to just not be able to think outside the box," said Robin Phillips, chief executive officer of Child Care Aware of Missouri. "Oftentimes we're finding that we can pull a list for them with services and different places they didn't know about, or perhaps they have limited themselves on a radius. We're programmed to think, 'I need it close to my house,' or 'I need it close to work,' but you don't consider all the variables."

Child Care Aware referral specialists can help families determine the factors most important to them, walking them through the different categories of child care and helping them understand state inspection reports.

"Thinking outside the box" could mean seeking child care in a broader geographic radius or in a non-center setting.

Home-based child care doesn't necessarily mean unlicensed child care.

Family homes may operate without a license for no more than four unrelated children but must have a license to care for up to 10 children. Group homes, with stricter licensing requirements, can care for up to 20.

"A family child care home business likely doesn't have the budget to do advertising. Oftentimes people don't know about homes," Phillips said.

Becky Saling's Jefferson City group home typically doesn't advertise.

"Usually with word of mouth I'm full," Saling said. "Most people that I've taken on are from one of my parents or a friend of theirs who has given my name out."

Saling started as an in-home family care provider in 1992 and transitioned to group home status six years later to retain her clients at the time who were having new babies. She said she always has a waiting list for the infant/toddler 0-2 age range, for which licensed care is in the scarcest supply.

Some families find they prefer in-home child care for the accommodations providers can make for drop-off and pickup times or breastfeeding/formula concerns.

"There's some people that believe — and I believe — that in the in-homes and the group homes you get more one-on-one, or you have the smaller group so you can do more with one group," Saling said. She compared her group home's mixed-age-group setting, with infants and preschoolers in the same room, to a larger center's single-age grouping. "Our babies right now are interacting with our older kids, and they learn a lot from our older kids."

Home-based care sometimes even undercuts centers on price. Saling, for example, charges $115-125 per week. The average weekly price for family child care in Cole County is $90-98, depending on age, compared to $112-160 for centers, according to Child Care Aware data.

Operating hours can present another barrier to child care access, especially for parents who work nontraditional hours

"I'm going to have a hard time finding a day care that will accommodate a 7-to-7 shift," said Tami Hughes, a Jefferson City single mother of two young and two school-age children studying to become a nurse. "I won't have any problem getting them there, but I'm going to have to have somebody else go and pick them up from day care because my shift is going to go at least an hour and a half after any day care will close."

While rare locally, some child care centers offer round-the-clock service.

"I was used to the 24-hour model," said Lakaisha McCaleb, who offered in-home child care in St. Louis for 15 years before moving to Jefferson City. She now operates the 24/7 Joy & Gladness Children's Academy on East McCarty Street.

Maybe the business model's novelty in Mid-Missouri is why it hasn't yet caught on here.

"Right now I feel like the community is not utilizing the service," McCaleb said. "I'm 24 hours, and I don't have any overnight kids."

The center is licensed for up to 36 children at one time, with some overlap allowed during pickup times.

"We have some nurses that work 12-hour shifts. They do utilize the service on weekends," McCaleb said. "We had a parent who couldn't get another position because it sometimes required her to work late, but once we opened she was able to get a promotion."

For challenges still not addressed, parents mired in the child care search can do what they're probably already doing: network.

Is a family member available a few days a week or during problem pickup and drop-off times? Can a church secretary scout the congregation for a member who provides in-home care? Is a local college student looking for a job and experience caring for children?

Parents should remember licensing requirements exist for a reason, and not all less-traditional options offer that safeguard.

Unlicensed child care providers are not required to undergo background checks, for example. Child Care Aware advises clients to use Missouri's Family Care Safety Registry, available at health.mo.gov/safety/fcsr, to perform their own.