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‘Almost impossible to find a slot:’ State's child care crisis worst for upstate, WNY infants

Kyle S. Mackie
A child plays in the three-year-old room at the nonprofit Chautauqua Lake Child Care Center in Mayville on Friday, Jan. 24.

Child care advocates will gather in Albany Tuesday to call for more state funding amid a growing child care availability crisis, which a new survey found is worst for infants in Western and Central New York.

Chelsea Vine is a single mother in the village of Bemus Point on Chautauqua Lake. Her son, Rylan, is one and a half, and her journey to find stable child care for him has been anything but easy.

“Within just over 15 months, I probably went through about five or six people that watched him on a permanent basis,” Vine said in a phone interview, after picking Rylan up from his new in-home child care provider in Jamestown. “And then, of course, I had family fill-ins. I had probably about four family members also: my grandmother, my aunt, my sister and my mother.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Rylan, 1, plays at his new in-home child care provider in Jamestown.

Vine is not alone in her struggle, especially not in rural upstate and Western New York, according to new survey of child care providers published in December 2019 and conducted on behalf of the Raising NY coalition. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of child care providers in such areas are at maximum capacity for infants—an age defined as six weeks to one and a half or two years, depending on the type of provider.

While rural areas show the highest need in the state for infant slots, the situation is not much better in Central and Western New York cities and suburban areas, with 65% of providers at capacity.

“If you have an infant right now, it’s almost impossible to find a slot anywhere in Niagara County,” said Angela Burns, child care supervisor at the Community Child Care Clearinghouse of Niagara.

The clearinghouse is Niagara County’s child care resource and referral agency, or CCRR, something every county has to help parents find care and support and train providers. Those agencies are seeing all kinds of child care providers close in rising numbers, according to Winning Beginning NY and the Empire State Campaign for Child Care, the two statewide coalitions organizing Tuesday’s early childhood advocacy day in Albany.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Two boys play during an after-school program in Dunkirk, one of the cities in Chautauqua County where the need for infant child care slots is highest.

“Our numbers used to be close to 300 for registered and licensed care and now we’re down to not that many, from when I started here,” Burns said, tallying the new figure at around 130 providers, including child care centers, family and group family child care homes and programs for school-age children. The total does not include legally exempt caregivers, who may care for up to two non-related children without a license.

Rose Ruh is the administrator of Little Wonders at St. James United Methodist Church, a child care center that opened in Niagara Falls in 2013.

“I think things have declined. They have worsened. And most often, I think it’s at catastrophic levels in Niagara County,” Ruh said. “Since we have opened up our center, I think there have been three that have closed in the area, essentially eliminating all early child care services in Niagara Falls.”

Ruh, Burns and eight other child care experts and providers WBFO interviewed said centers and in-home providers are closing in large part because of rising costs and ever-growing state and federal regulations. Ruh said she is particularly hurting from late payments from the Niagara County Department of Social Services, which helps pay part of the child care costs for working families that earn up to 120% of the federal poverty level.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Children's snow suits hang at the ready at a universal pre-K program in Dunkirk.

In 2020, the poverty level is $17,240 for a family of two—a single parent and child, for example—and $26,200 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Late government payments mean Little Wonders can’t accept too many families who rely on those subsidies.

“I have to really watch my numbers [and] not go too far over one-third [of all families]," Ruh said. "Right now, I’m expecting $45,000 from them [DSS]. Imagine what it’s like to run a day care center when we are backlogged for $45,000.”

In response, Interim Commissioner of Niagara County DSS Meghan Lutz said the department processes payments as quickly as possible. Her full written statement reads:

At the Niagara County Department of Social Services, we view our daycare providers as partners and continue to work with both our providers and the families that we serve to get payments processed as quickly as possible. Over the past 2 years we have made significant improvement in our time frame for processing and continue to explore avenues for improvement. Our staff work hard to ensure bills are paid timely and continually follow-up with clients when documentation is missing or incomplete. We are proud of the work being done to provide daycare subsidies to more than 400 families in the County.

It’s also important to note that child care isn’t an industry where providers can just charge more to cover rising costs, like increases in the minimum wage. New York State determines market rates, which are generally the maximum amounts counties will pay providers like Ruh for families that qualify for subsidies. Providers can only directly charge those families a set co-pay.

At the same time, providers know that private pay families—those who don’t qualify for any child care assistance—are also often struggling to afford care.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Beth Starks is founder and executive director of Chautauqua Lake Child Care Center in Mayville and a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Child Care Availability Task Force.

Beth Starks, assistant professor and coordinator of early childhood education at Jamestown Community College, explained how that system is playing out in Chautauqua County, where families can earn a little more than in Niagara County and still qualify for assistance.

“Even with 200% of the poverty level, I did the math when we were looking at it: If it is a two-parent income family, both of them making minimum wage, if one of them gets a $1/hour raise, then they’re no longer eligible [for assistance].”

Starks runs the nonprofit Chautauqua Lake Child Care Center in Mayville and is a member of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Child Care Availability Task Force. She will rally in Albany Tuesday along with other advocates to ask the governor to add significant new investments in child care to his 2020 Executive Budget proposal.

“We can’t continue to say ‘child care’s important, children are important’ and then not put the dollars behind it,” Starks said.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Staff members of the Chautauqua Child Care Council at Chautauqua Opportunities pose for a group photo on Friday, Jan. 24. From left to right: Bill Vogt, Chirvhoua Churjeng, Erika Hines, Susan Marker and Patti Dudenhoeffer.

The advocates’ funding ask is high: $100 million total to pay higher wages for child care workers, improve the quality of care and expand affordable access for families.

Bill Vogt, director of Head Start at Chautauqua Opportunities, which also houses the county’s CCRR, said funding early childhood education and child care should be seen as an economic investment.

“For every dollar that is invested in early education, it’s almost a $5 return on that investment because you’re helping the current family stay employed or get employment, you’re helping to employ the child care provider, and you’re paying it forward with the child in getting their education started.”

That’s an argument Vogt, Starks and others, including businesses in Chautauqua County, are hoping will be heard not just in Albany, but also by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. The county submitted a grant application last fall for a public-private partnership that would expand subsidies for middle-class families, in part, by offering child care assistance as an employment benefit. There is no word yet on when they might hear back.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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