Is there a shortage of child-care options in Colorado? It may be difficult to prove it statistically, but Liz Mora doesn’t have any doubt about the answer to the question.
“Get on the waiting list as soon as you know you’re pregnant,” said Mora, executive director of the Durango Women’s Resource Center. “Begin with Head Start, but get on every possible list.”
The need for more child care may not be a new issue, but it is garnering attention as different entities pool resources to increase available slots and maximize their community’s licensing capacity.
Mora was able to secure an immediate position for her first child but had to wait months before she found childcare placement for her second. She said the lack of availability can lead to many problems for parents, including not being able to hold a full-time job.
“Finding day care can become a huge barrier for women who need full-time employment,” Mora said. “If you don’t have a safe place for your kids, you can’t work.”
Affordability is not always the problem.
“For dual-income families, which represent over 60 percent of children, child care is still unavailable,” said Luke Prince, marketing director for Pea Pods Family Childcare Homes, based in Durango. “It’s not that money is the problem. If parents have it, they’ll most likely still be put on the waiting list.”
The availability of child-care resources is dependent, of course, on the availability of staff.
The Treehouse Early Learning Center of Montezuma County provides child care for children from 8 weeks to 12 years in age.
Brandi Henderson, director of the center, said it’s difficult to maintain staff.
“The biggest challenge is getting providers and finding qualified, quality staff,” she said. “Being such a small area, the availability of qualified staff is definitely lacking.”
“I’ve definitely learned a lot and seen a lot of great things happen, but there’s a lot of room for improvement,” she said. “For our area, the things we do are great, but of course I’d like to see an increased availability of care.”
Tamara Volz, director of the Early Childhood Council (ECC) of La Plata County, partly attributes the shortage of providers across the state to new state quality standards.
“There are a lot of new, rigorous standards to measure child care and that’s why it’s been so hard to find providers and teachers,” she said. “We’re trying to get folks up to speed on the next quality ratings system, but it’s a huge effort with different levels of quality tied into it.”
Colorado Shines, a program under the umbrella of the Colorado Department of Human Services, provides the new state Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). Through this program, the state offers additional professional development opportunities for child-care staff.
“There’s a wonderful Early Childhood Council here that is really involved in influencing and making an impact on needed changes,” she said. “There was no such thing in California.”
Henderson said the ECC, a coalition of community members and agencies who work together to create a quality and comprehensive early-childhood system, is making a big difference in providing more providers.
The La Plata County ECC, a collaborative with five other counties, recently increased the number of infant and toddler care spots in child-care facilities as well as homes in Southwest Colorado by 51 – 33 in La Plata County, 14 in Montezuma County, and four in Archuleta.
Henderson said the childcare shortage is not unique to Montezuma and La Plata counties.
“It’s a statewide problem,” she said. “There’s a lack of qualified, quality teachers all the way through elementary and middle-school levels. It’s been an ongoing problem for years among most centers and we really need to focus on getting the word out there and brainstorm new ideas to bring in more providers.”
Volz said despite some improvement in the availability of care for toddlers and infants, the crisis is expanding. The next problem, she predicted, will be a shortage of teachers, largely because of poor pay.
“It will really be a perfect storm because the next big crisis will be in finding teachers,” Volz said. “We’re already seeing this in our workforce. There are simply not enough qualified teachers for spots that need to be filled.”
Lindsey Dorneman, communications and projects manager for the Colorado Office of Early Childhood (COEC), said state leaders understand an issue exists but it is hard to discern exactly what it looks like. “The state recognizes that access to quality child care is likely a statewide issue, but we are only able to estimate the need based on the total number of licensed child-care slots versus the total number of children under the age of five years in the state,” Dorneman said.
One of the primary figures looked at to determine child-care need is license capacity – the maximum number of children who may be cared for in a center at any one time and the number of children in that region who may be in need of care.
Comparing Colorado to the rest of the nation poses some challenges.
“Meaningful comparisons across states are difficult to make as each state has its own licensing rules, and, as a result, the amount of available licensed care represents different things,” Dorneman said.
She also said that relative availability is not the same as the ability to meet demand and that stay-at-home moms and Family Friend and Neighborhood child care affects this number.
“This has an impact on demand in an area and it’s difficult to tease out whether additional child-care slots would change demand in every area,” she said.
However, the state is working on addressing the issue.
“The state’s goal is to ensure that there is equal access to licensed quality care for children whose parents choose to place their kids in child care and early education programs,” Dorneman said.
Pea Pods, a grassroots program providing child-care management, is trying to improve the situation by connecting providers and parents in Southwest Colorado, monitoring and streamlining homes to meet quality standards and helping parents find these homes for their children.
Prince said one of the obstacles to increasing the number of child-care providers is the licensing process, which takes an average of six months to complete and can be expensive.
Pea Pods offers no-interest loans for the certification process for providers who need financial support. The loans are provided by the El Pomar Foundation, which gives grants to Colorado nonprofits.
“If someone wants to do this, we will find a way,” Prince said. “It can actually be a very lucrative business opportunity for parents that they don’t know about. The money is in the homes, we just need to get people involved.” The State of Colorado is also in the process of making micro-grants and micro-loans available to child-care providers interested in getting licensed.
These funds are expected to be available in early 2016.
Henderson agreed with Prince that the option of becoming a child-care provider is viable, but many people don’t know it is a possibility.
“It’s not the same recognition as K-through-12 teachers would get and since it’s not on the same standard, pay is often much, much less,” Henderson said. “It’s definitely not a high-paying position for the responsibility. You have to have a passion for children. You don’t do it to become rich; you do it to watch children grow and explore.”
Prince agreed that it is a fulfilling job prospect.
“To have a job is one thing, but to have a job with purpose and meaning is so much bigger than that,” Prince said. “It’s not just babysitting, it’s early education.”
Henderson said she would like to see the pay increase. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to do something better with the pay scale,” she said, but added that because of the lack of resources in the area and its being a smaller community, the interest may not be there.
Southwest Community College and Fort Lewis College both offer courses in early childhood care.
Prince said that personalized home care is definitely preferable for a child’s development.
“Moms are the best child-care providers, especially in the early years,” he said. “Children do better in a home environment rather than [big] child-care centers with fluorescent lights.”
Laurel Foster, a stay-at-home mother of two in Durango, agreed.
“The difference between at-home care and care at a larger center is the number of children,” she said. “If that ratio goes above a certain number, the quality goes way down and it starts affecting cognitive skills, social skills, behavior, really everything. Children really need one-on-one attention.”
But she said among the mothers she knows, she is the only one who is a stay-at-home mom.
“All my ‘mommy’ friends have jobs outside of the home and they struggle with finding care,” Foster said.
For many, the quality of care is as important as just finding it.
Megan Ruvalcaba of Cortez, 26, has one son and is a stay-at-home mom.
“I’ve always been really careful about who watches him,” she said. “You can’t be too careful of who you trust.”