Budget proposal raises worries of waitlist for child care subsidy - VTDigger

Budget proposal raises worries of waitlist for child care subsidy

Children play at the Turtle Island Children's Center in Montpelier. Photo by Alicia Freese

Youngsters play at a child care center in Montpelier. File photo by Alicia Freese

A state program that helps low-income families afford child care is not slated for an increase in the state’s budget for the next fiscal year. That could be a further stress on a program that is already stretched thin due to a number of factors — including the high number of young children in state custody.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 does not include more money for the child care financial assistance program.

The program, operated through the Department for Children and Families’ child development division, provides some degree of financial support for child care for 8,500 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 years.

Families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify for the child care subsidy, which also requires that parents be engaged in work or educational activity.

Some people involved fear that without a budget increase, the state would start using a waiting list, meaning families that are eligible would need to wait until there is an opening before they can get the subsidy.

DCF Deputy Commissioner Reeva Murphy, who oversees the division, said a waiting list would be the last resort. The department likely would seek to move money from other programs or to get an increase under the midyear budget adjustment before implementing a waitlist, she said.

“It is not our preference, and we would not do that without making an attempt to fully fund what we needed,” Murphy said.

Reeva Murphy

Reeva Murphy of the Agency of Human Services speaks during a House committee meeting. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

She also said trend lines indicate that the demand for the program may not increase as much in the near future as it has in the past. The department is “guardedly optimistic” that the program will be able to operate within a level-funded budget, she said.

For some child care centers, the program pays for a large number of the clients.

About 90 percent of the children at New Beginnings Childcare Center in St. Johnsbury are subsidized, according to the center’s director, Maryann Baker.

“It’s huge to my clientele,” Baker said. “It means the difference between whether these children would get quality care, really.”

The program calculates the subsidy amounts based on market rate studies of the cost of child care in Vermont, using a federal recommendation that the subsidy should cover the full tuition at three-quarters of the facilities in the state.

The current subsidy is based primarily on the market rate study from 2008, plus a slight increase added in 2013. But child care fees have increased since that time. Today, the subsidy covers the full tuition of just a quarter of all child care.

Because of the rate, many child care centers charge an additional fee, called a copay, to families that use the subsidy. For many families, the additional fee is difficult to afford.

Murphy said the state does try to find ways to help families deal with the copay. One program ensures that families do not pay copays if they go to the highest-rated centers in the state, for instance.

Child care centers say they also try to help families.

According to Cindy Boyce, who runs the New Beginnings location in Wells River, even the copay may be too expensive for many families that qualify for the subsidy.

“We try to work it out with them, but it’s hard for some families,” Boyce said.

The center works with families to try to find an arrangement they can afford, she said. In some cases that may mean the child comes to the center four, rather than five, days a week.

Meanwhile, the subsidy program has seen an additional stress as the number of young children in state custody has increased.

The state had 539 children under age 6 in its custody in fiscal year 2015 — nearly double the total two years earlier, when the number was 284.

Murphy noted that even with the recent increase, children in DCF custody are not a large proportion of the total number of children served under the child care subsidy program.

Those children do tend to have more expensive needs, she said. The department tries to ensure that those kids, many of whom come from traumatic backgrounds, are served through the state’s highest-quality programs. Also, because they are in the state’s custody, the state pays the copay in full.

Collectively, the increase has contributed to driving up the average cost per child, she said.

Kelley Todriff, family and mental health services program manager at Rutland County Head Start, said she has noticed the increasing number of children in state custody in her program in recent years.

In addition to serving as a Head Start center, the facility operates for several hours out of the day as a child care center.

Todriff said families with young children would likely feel a big impact if the state were to adopt a waiting list for the subsidy program.

“Vermont has never had that,” Todriff said. “We definitely would feel the effects of that.”

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Human Services. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington. File photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

The program came up in a memo the House Human Services Committee sent to the House Appropriations Committee on the governor’s budget proposal in late February. The memo is part of an annual process in which the committee drafting the budget seeks input from legislative policy committees.

The House Human Services Committee was “surprised” that there may be a waitlist for child care services, according to the memo. Members wrote that they would like more information about who would be affected by a waitlist and when it may begin.

“Access to child care is a problem,” said Human Services Chair Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, noting that child care openings for infants especially can be scarce and expensive. “The cost is high, and the cost is high for child care as an industry.”

Pugh said she would like to see more scrutiny of the money that the state is spending on child care now.

“We know that high-quality child care is important,” she said. However, she would like to see more study of how high-quality programs correlate to preparing young children for school.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • edward letourneau

    Why has the number of children in custody doubled? — Its really time for this state to have a rational discussion about the breakdown of its social mores.

  • Jamie Carter

    “Families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify for the child care subsidy, which also requires that parents be engaged in work or educational activity.”

    This is pretty misleading. You aren’t required to be engaged in work, according to the state website “actively looking for work” is sufficient, as is “Is participating in Reach Up activities.”

    So if you are on welfare or browsing want ads then you also qualify. You could also take one online night course from CCV and have the entire day off to yourself. And if you don’t fit into one of those scenarios there is also a blanket, cover anyone, clause

    “The family is experiencing significant stress in areas such as shelter, safety, emotional stability, substance abuse, children’s behaviors, and parenting issues.”

    So basically my child care should be covered because this state is causing me significant stress over how I’m going to continue to provide shelter for my family. Or, my emotional stability is stressed because we have politicians who shouldn’t be allowed to work at McD’s let along draft laws that effect my life and family. There now give me some money!!!!

    Perhaps a drug screen would reduce the waiting list.

  • Aula DeWitt

    With the coming changes in Legally Exempt Child Care we will almost certainly see an increase in need for child care and the subsidy.

  • Dave Bellini

    Government cannot and should not, be all things, to all people. “…the cost is high for child care as an industry.” Childcare should not be an “industry.” Kids don’t need “programs” …they need PARENTS, and grandparents and uncles and aunts. Family is the best “program.” The state has good intentions. The programs are staffed by caring people. But government programs for everything creates dependency, bureaucracy and cost. Tax dollars would be better spent on prevention. It’s better to have government incentives and programs that foster responsible reproduction. It would cost much less to pay some young people to NOT have kids. This wouldn’t be the answer to every situation either but it would make sense in some circumstances.

  • Tony Redington

    We must raise right now about $300 million in taxes abandoned begin the task of meeting VT human and infrastructure needs..the answer today to programs suffering cuts–really all programs–is, yes, more money! Deviating 5 pct more to public sector means day care taken care of, free public colleges tuition and things most Europeans take for granted now.

    • Randy Jorgensen

      For sure, and look how their economy has been doing over the last decade.

      Many of the central banks have either already undergone or are considering negative interest rates to get companies and people to spend money.

      Nothing like being charged to let a bank hold your money.

    • Zeke Rivers

      Most people propagating this incredibly false vision of ‘Europe’ have never lived/worked outside the US.

      • Randy Jorgensen

        The grass is always greener on the other side of the pasture, or in this case pond.

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