For child care, long waiting lists getting longer

Local providers struggle to meet increase in demand

SARASOTA COUNTY — Four-year-old Nadia already had child care lined up when she was 6 months... in the womb. To get a spot, said her mother Amanda Bailey, you have to start as early as possible. 

Local providers say that waiting lists have always been the norm, but in recent months, many have reported a sharp increase in demand. Officials struggle to pinpoint a particular reason, but years of stagnant funding, a decline in the number of providers and the surge in heroin use that has led to court-mandated referrals for child care have all strained the system

The waiting list at federally funded Children First centers in Sarasota has ballooned to over 400 this year. It typically hovers around 250-300. By midsummer, it was at 428.

Children First has 13 locations in Sarasota. It’s the only organization in the county that receives Head Start and Early Head Start federal grants to provide free or subsidized care for low-income families. Officials from the National Head Start Association said they don’t keep track of waiting list trends nationwide, and they’re not sure why the list had jumped.

Children First CEO Philip Tavill said an improving economy may have something to do with it. The local unemployment rate is steadily declining and more families no longer have stay-at-home caregivers. But the cost of care remains prohibitive for many families, Tavill said, adding, “If you’re working a minimum wage job, it’s almost impossible to afford care.”

A family of three that qualifies for Children First makes under $20,160 a year.

Since Janet Kahn became executive director at the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County in 2002, she’s never known a year without a waiting list.

“It’s becoming an issue in our community,” Kahn said. “Waiting lists have grown and will continue to grow because there is not enough funding to meet the need.”

The Early Learning Coalition receives a mix of federal, state and local dollars that are allocated to low-income families in need of subsidized child care. Kahn said that the formula used by the state and federal governments to fund the coalition has not been updated.

“We don’t have the same amount of money we had in 2002,” Kahn said.

The number of providers also has declined, straining the existing centers further. In the early 2000s, the Early Learning Coalition oversaw more than 200 providers. They’re down to 175.

Taking kids off waiting lists is no easy task. Centers must often meet certain requirements such as strict teacher-to-student ratios and appropriate classroom conditions. 

Domino effect

If she did not have her three young kids at Children First, Bailey, 27, said she’d have gone crazy, “Every two weeks I’d have to pay $300 that I don’t have,” she said.

Bailey is a certified nursing assistant, but she has restricted herself to working on weekends because her work schedule during the week would not coincide with her kids’ care hours. The decision has reduced her income, but as a mother of four, she said, “You can’t beat not having to pay for care for those hours.”

Researchers have noted a similar trend nationwide. In a 2014 report, Pew Research attributes a resurgence in stay-at-home moms in part to the inaccessibility of child care.

In 2014, the Early Learning Coalition conducted a survey to assess the impact that waiting lists had on local families. About a quarter of the 50 families surveyed said that having no child care prevented them from working full time or keeping a job. A third of the families surveyed also expressed concern over their kid's development.

“It’s difficult when they stay home with grandma or cousins,” said Kristen Theisen, director of advancement and stewardship at Children First. “They don’t get the same kind of structure and instruction that they would get at a true preschool.”

Kahn said the community needs to focus on child care availability if it wants all its children to succeed.

“If you have kids on waiting lists who can’t get into pre-K then definitely when they get to kindergarten they’re not likely to be ready," she said.