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Decades of neglect and underinvestment in the systems that address mental health needs across childhood settings have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and must be addressed urgently.

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The latest report on The State of Vermont’s Children adds to the cacophony of alarm bells concerning the care and education of our youngest citizens, especially since the onset of the pandemic.

While there are some positives in the report compiled by Building Bright Futures — such as increased housing supports — the declines and vacancies in the child care workforce and the increasing prevalence of children with behavioral, emotional, developmental and mental health issues are cause for concern.

“The implications from the social isolation and stress on children and families are beginning to arise in the form of increased frequency and acuity of behavioral, emotional, and mental health challenges for children, and increased burnout for those who serve children and families,” the report states. “These additional needs, paired with the vacancies, understaffing, and turnover in essential human services, pose significant risks to Vermont children and families.”

The child care issue is a problem that has been brewing for years, but brought to the forefront since the start of the COVID pandemic. Between December 2015 and December 2020, Vermont lost 2.5 percent of reported child care capacity, a total of 821 spots, according to Chloe Leary, executive director of Brattleboro’s Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

“We’ve had this problem all along,” she said in a November interview. “The pandemic exacerbated it.”

Currently, about 994 children are being served by local programs, but Leary says the area needs at least another 115 slots to make a dent in the problem. At the Winston Prouty center, only four of the six available classrooms are open because of staffing shortages. Licensed for 68 children at full capacity, the center can have 42 with its four classrooms.

“This year, the longstanding workforce challenges have escalated into a crisis for Vermont’s early childhood system,” says the Building Bright Futures report.

The problem, says Leary, is the lack of financial support for both child care workers and the families that need child care services.

“Working with young children is rewarding and exhausting, and involves more health risk than usual in the time of COVID,” Leary wrote in a recent column in the Reformer. “Wages do not reflect the value, stress, or risk of the work, and it is hard to keep people in the field when they can make $3 to $5 more an hour at an easier, less risky job.”

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One of the key recommendations from the Building Bright Futures report is to invest more in the compensation, recruitment, retention, training and professional development of child care workers and early child educators. Leary says efforts are underway to do just that.

Act 45 in Vermont, which the governor signed last June, represents a strong step forward in making child care more affordable for families and supporting early educators through the creation of scholarships; adjustment or removal of copayments; and loan repayment assistance. And the Build Back Better Act being considered at the federal level includes several elements for expanding child care, including decreasing the cost of tuition for families and creating free universal pre-kindergarten.

Locally, the Child Care Counts Coalition in Windham County is looking to raise $175,000 to establish the Elizabeth Christie Fund to give bonuses to local child care workers who are staying or joining the field. Among those Leary is reaching out to for financial support is the business community, which faces a slew of challenges when working parents don’t have access to affordable, quality child care.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey conducted in 2019 found that, even before the pandemic, many parents were postponing school and training programs, declining promotions and (sometimes) leaving the workforce entirely because of child care challenges. This leaves employers struggling with high turnover, hiring issues, transition and training, and decreased productivity.

Any money that a local company contributes to helping solve the child care crisis should be seen as an investment in its own future. Not only would it reduce the challenges of vacancies and high turnover, but it would make life easier for existing employees ... and a happy employee is a productive employee.

As for Vermont’s mental health crisis, the challenges and solutions echo those of the child care issue. We all know that, for many children, mental health challenges resulting from the pandemic will have both short- and long-term consequences to their overall health and well-being. This includes children’s capacity to regulate and express emotion; form close, secure relationships; and to explore the environment and learn.

Unfortunately, decades of neglect and underinvestment in the systems that address mental health needs across childhood settings have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and must be addressed urgently.

As the report notes, “The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need for increasing mental health resources and supports across settings and in multiple modes. While the need and acuity are continuing to rise, recruiting and retaining the mental health workforce has escalated from a challenge to a crisis.”