07/08/09 — Economy has mixed effects on day cares across county

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Economy has mixed effects on day cares across county

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 8, 2009 1:43 PM

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Harper Cate Floars, 3, Christina Pope, 4, and Parker Weldman, 3, play together at the Wayne Community College Childcare Center.

The economy is trickling down to day care options for parents, with programs like More at Four already feeling the pinch.

Local staff in the program have been processing applications while anticipating what the latest state budget will mean for the coming year.

Officials learned recently that the program will lose 50 slots this fall.

"We had 684 slots, and learned that's being dropped to 634," said Don Magoon, executive director for The Partnership for Children of Wayne County.

That is subject to change, Magoon said, explaining that it occurred as a "direct result of temporary spending measures that the governor instituted this week ... a 7.5 percent slot reduction across the state."

His staff has already placed 508 children for the fall, he said.

The economy is not slowing down families seeking day care, with subsidized options being expanded to accommodate parents finding themselves unemployed.

Last month, eligibility criteria was changed to allow families and children more flexibility during the economic crisis. The state's Division of Child Development outlined its "temporarily expanded eligibility" for those seeking employment, allowing parents to extend child care services for up to six months. Effective July 1, provisions are expected to become law when the General Assembly approves the budget.

Meanwhile, enrollment at area facilities remains steady, with Wayne County actually faring better than most, officials say.

"What we have been hearing is that it really hasn't dropped off much," said Magoon. "In many, many counties it's dropped off tremendously because of unemployment."

The Partnership oversees an estimated 130 child care facilities in the county, Magoon said. Some may have changed their strategies in terms of what age they're serving, he said -- catering more toward the infants and toddlers rather than preschool, for example -- but otherwise are at or nearing capacity.

While many parents are working and pay out of pocket, increasing numbers of unemployed or underemployed parents have had to seek subsidies to afford child care. Agencies like the Department of Social Services issue vouchers offsetting the costs.

As of April, there were 1,389 unduplicated cases receiving subsidies from various sources. Broken down, Magoon said the Partnership funds 219, the Work First program another 105, and 1,118 are funded by state dollars. The difference, 53, receive funding from more than one source. Still others remain in need of assistance.

"Wayne County is in the range of 538 -- families that have applied for a subsidy or requested it -- and no slots were available so they were placed on the waiting list," he explained.

His staff recently polled area day care facilities and reported 1,475 slots have been filled, with 660 openings still available.

Bill Batts, director of Small World Child Care Center and Preschool, anticipates some new students in the fall, with new enrollments typically coming in mid-August.

"Usually we have enrollees stay with us," he explained. "The ones during the school year usually stay with us during the summer."

While the numbers might drop off during the summer months, he has not seen a drastic change this year, Batts said of the center, which serves children from ages 2-12.

"Most of them come all day long, a few just for the preschool during the school year," he said. "We have five to 10 families that just use the preschool program only, from 8:30 until 12. Most of them are working so they need it for the full day.

"They still need the services if they're working. We haven't been hit that hard as far as unemployment, which is good."

Some families at the center do receive subsidies from the DSS, Batts said, ranging from covering the full tuition to just a portion.

"It seems to be steady on that, and I haven't head anything on the new budget," he said.

Those with vouchers are also "holding their own" at Wayne Community College Child Care Center, said Phyllis Chesson, director.

"Fortunately we have not seen a change," she said. "I don't feel that we're losing anyone right now due to the economic situation."

The year-round center serves faculty and students at the college, as well as community patrons. Full-time slots are filled by babies six weeks old until the child starts kindergarten.

"We're right at capacity within the transition of students into a classroom," she said. "What I'm seeing is parents are looking at the quality for their children versus the price. The first thing they look for is the star rating, the environment, education of the staff, cleanliness, safety issues, which mean more when they have to leave their child."

The Partnership also makes referrals for families through its Child Care Resource and Referral program at 735-3371, Magoon said. It is a free service.

"CCR&R staff can refer families to the childcare options based on services, location, quality, cost and other factors, but they cannot recommend one site over another," he said. "They make referrals based on family needs or desires."