Let's Grow Kids talks about Vermont's broken childcare system

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BRATTLEBORO >> While it may be an aspiration for many couples to raise a family in Vermont, barriers are often placed in front of working parents.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, 70 percent of Vermont's children under the age of 6 have parents in the labor force; there are 18,247 children under age of 3 in Vermont, with 12,846 of them likely to need some form of child care. Of that number, 79 percent are infants and toddlers likely to need care who do not have access to high-quality programs because there simply aren't enough slots available to meet the demand, regardless of cost.

On Wednesday, morning a conversation around these challenges for Vermonters was started by Let's Grow Kids, a campaign about the important role of high-quality, affordable child care. A range of speakers and people were present at the event, including state reps, CEOs, doctors, members from the Vermont Department of Children and Families, policy directors and those with personal stories about their experiences with child care in Vermont.

"When we found child care, even with decent salaries, we actually can't afford it," said Brandie Starr, Marketing Assistant and Executive Assistance to the CEO at Brattleboro Savings & Loan. Starr is also a wife and mother of two. "While venting my surprise on social media, and with other parents, I realized no one could afford it."

Starr mentioned that at some of the first child care facilities she looked at, there were several flaws such as underpaid staff, teacher stress and other children biting hers to the point of bleeding. At those child care facilities, she paid $500 per week for her two children.

She expressed gratitude to her boss who has been gracious through the years to allow her time off when needed and who has also promoted her. However, she notes her sadness to watch other mothers quit their jobs because they felt as though they had no choice but to leave, unable to afford quality child care.

"I can't imagine working in a place that can't give you that flexibility," said Starr.

In Starr's presentation, she mentioned that 45 percent of parents are absent from work at least once due to child care issues, resulting in an average of 4.3 days missed from work. In addition, 65 percent of parents' work schedules are affected by child care givers.

"It's too expensive for parents to be able to do this; I mean even at the first places we found, it was still $500 a week, $250 a kid."

Starr noted that now they are paying $617 per week for childcare, transferring nearly her entire check to the day care account and borrowing $50 from her husband's paycheck to make up the difference.

Let's Grow Kids revealed statistics for the supply and demand for Likely To Need Care populations. According to the data, there are 8,502 infants who are in the LTNC population and there are 3,275 total regulated provider slots and 1,237 high-quality regulated provider slots. As for toddlers, there are 4,344 in the LTNC population, with 3,490 total regulated provider spots and 1,427 high-quality regulated provider slots. In Windham County, there are 85-percent of infants LTNC without access to high-quality regulated programs and 68-percent of infants LTNC are without access to regulated programs.

"I survived a childhood of very deep poverty, severe abuse and dysfunction in my home, as a result of that I was removed from my home," said Starr. She noted that when removed from her home she lived in several group and foster homes. "It is critically important to me that my children have the best care and the best financial stability."

Starr also noted that every dollar invested into early childhood programs such as child care, yields $7 to $10 in return, reducing future costs in education, health care and corrections. In addition, she mentioned that in this case children are less likely to need special education, or be held back a grade and are less likely to commit a violent crime.

At the end of her speech, Starr received a standing ovation and some wiped tears from their eyes.

Other points about some of the problems with the current system came from Heather Mattison, from the Child Development Division of DCF. Mattison commented that while some child care programs are affordable, many of them do not serve infants, as they are a "difficult population to serve." This becomes a stumbling block for parents in the labor force.

At the meeting they all discussed STARS (Step Ahead Recognition System) from one to five for these childcare programs. Mattison explained that a program can choose five different arenas such as regulatory (one that has not received serious violations), practices with families and communities, qualifications of staff, program practices (assessment of the program and interaction with children) and program administration (what are the policies and what do they pay their staff).

"Four and five is the top of that scale, so they receive points across the five arenas to get five stars," said Mattison.

Jill Stahl Tyler, who is Brattleboro Town School Board Chairwoman, asked if these rating involved skewing numbers and if the rating is similar to that of a hotel rating, noting she does not always need everything that comes with a five-star hotel.

Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children, explained that it is a voluntary system and that they are undergoing a process with Child Trends to complete a validation and reliability study of STARS. These studies will answer whether the ratings are accurate in reality and on paper.

"The state has decided as a state this is a quality recognition system that it has spent decades working on," said Richards.

Dr. Nina Sand-Loud, Development-Behavioral Pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, mentioned that a four or five rating is not luxury childcare. "It's not getting the Mercedes-Benz versus the Ford," she said. "It's getting people that are better trained and can better understand what kids need. It's the minimum of what you want."

Another woman at the meeting mentioned that Act 166 and the STARS ratings are driving the cost of child care and that "Hurting families are writing checks bigger than their mortgages."

Jen Horwitz, Policy & Research Director of Let's Grow Kids, said the next step is continuing the conversation. She asked everyone to break up into groups and discuss how they will "steer the conversation" about the issues surrounding child care in Vermont. The ideas that will appear at letsgrowkids.org

Sen. Becca Balint of the Windham District explained what she took away from the talk on Wednesday morning. "For me it's about translating both to my constituents and voters who perhaps don't feel connected to this particular issue in the Legislature about how child care issues are absolutely connected to our demographic problem in Vermont, in terms of not having young people feel like they can move here. It's connected to our housing problem and it's connected to our workforce problem."

She noted though it's a critical problem, it's not a critical problem in isolation. Balint said she was brainstorming how to create some type of child care co-op for a coalition of employers.

"I don't know what it will look like, but I do think we need to start thinking differently," said Balint.

For more information about Let's Grow Kids or input from Wednesday's meeting, visit letsgrowkids.org

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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