This is the second in a two-part series that looks at the childcare crisis in Hood River County.
While there are 40 childcare providers in Hood River County, only 22 of those programs provide infant and/or toddler care. And those slots are also limited.
“Just because it is called childcare doesn’t mean it cares for children of all ages,” said Nancy Patten, Child Care Partners coordinator and director of Childcare Resource & Referral at Columbia Gorge Community College.
While preschoolers require one adult for every 10 children, infants require one adult for every four.
“If a parent is looking for care, they can expect limited options available with openings,” Patten said.
Adding to the deficit of providers is that there are currently no employers in the county that offer onsite childcare.
“Some employers are making the connection between childcare, workforce and the community,” said Christa Rude, Four Rivers Early Learning & Parenting Hub director. “The dilemma is that it doesn’t always pencil out.”
She cited the longstanding, employer-supported Great and Small daycare at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles. “It’s been running for 30-some years, but it doesn’t pencil out for the hospital,” she said. “They never make money on it, but they have to have it because it supports their workforce, and they have to have a workforce.”
Rude and Patten said the conversation around childcare is evolving, becoming more focused on the development of the child and the importance of quality care, as well as the critical need for providers.
“There is a lot of momentum,” Rude said. “It seems to me similar to the way 25-30 years ago, when the field of nursing became more valued and elevated.”
“It’s a matter of getting parents to understand the importance (of quality childcare) as well as getting childcare providers to understand how important the work they’re doing is,” said Patten.
“… We are trying to lift up the conversation and how important (this) is, that it matters, whether it’s a family home or a preschool at a church. Kids need consistent, warm, engaging environments that help their little brains grow,” said Rude.
In Hood River County, several providers have closed their facilities in recent years for a variety of reasons. Some are retiring, while others are choosing to take different jobs with a higher pay scale. Still others are finding difficulty with zoning laws or licensing regulations, or simply burn out.
Justine Ziegler, development officer at Next Door Inc. with two children ages 5 and 3, had in-home daycare lined up for her youngest child when she returned to work after 12 weeks postpartum. But five months later, the provider announced she was retiring.
“When I returned to work at the usual 12 weeks postpartum, (our youngest) was all set up with a lovely in-home daycare. Just five short months later, the provider decided it was time for her to retire,” Ziegler said. “Initially, we were given four weeks’ notice to find a new daycare. We called all the providers in town and quickly faced barriers: Facilities that didn’t take children under the age of 3 or even 1, daycares that required infants under 1 year to attend full time — we couldn’t afford that — and the biggest challenge of waitlists being a minimum of three months long.”
Ziegler said that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the four weeks’ notice turned into two weeks, and “panic set in.” She was able to get her youngest on a waitlist, but it was another six months before a spot opened.
“Thankfully, our places of work are understanding and flexible, allowing us to work hours from home during that six-month period,” she said. “In those cases, my parents or (husband) Jeremy’s parents came into town from two hours away to be with him so we could be at the office. We were lucky. I’m grateful our employers and families were willing and able to be so accommodating. What I always think about are the parents who don’t have that privilege. What would we have done?”
Providers face a workday with no breaks or vacation time, as well as paperwork and continuing education after the kids go home.
“Some are looking at the job market and saying, ‘I can make more money if I go work somewhere else, plus I’ll get benefits,’” said Patten, who was a childcare provider herself for 17 years. “Those who are self-employed receive no benefits or standard hours … And then there are those who move or retire after their kids graduate from high school.”
“The process of setting up childcare in the county right now, there’s some kind of disconnect and it’s making it difficult,” said Terri Vann, director of community coordination with Keeping Families Together. “We need (childcare), but they feel like we’re stopping them because they can’t get through the red tape (for zoning).”
Regulations for providers have also changed. There’s now a licensing tier that providers must go through, which helps families distinguish quality programs. Those with higher designations have had more training and provide more developmentally appropriate environments for the infants and children in their care.
“It’s complicated, and there have been massive amounts of changes over the past five to seven years,” said Patten. “Something is constantly changing or being added.
“… They’re not bad requirements — I think they’re good in small doses — but when they come continuously, it burns them out.”
Costs of care
The costs childcare is roughly the same as attendance to a state college, said Rude. If families are looking to place two children, the cost is even higher.
“Especially when housing (cost) is so high,” Rude said. “So you might work two or three jobs. Who’s going to look after the kids? … We have complicated hydraulics at play and the youngest kids are taking the hit, and we need to do better than that.”
“Full-time daycare or preschool costs over $1,000 per month per child,” said Lauren Kraemer, assistant professor of practice with OSU Extension, who has two children, ages 5 and 2. “Now that our older child is in school, the cost is a little less, but we still pay for afterschool care four days per week.
“This was honestly something our family was so naïve about,” she added. “When we started our family, we assumed we’d figure it out and didn’t really plan for this aspect with good knowledge of what it would cost. We were truly shocked to learn how much it would cost to pay for childcare, how long it would take and how much stress it would cause.”
“We’ve got to find a way to find childcare across the nation,” said Patten. “Providers are going out of business because they make less than minimum wage and parents are going broke because they can’t afford it.”
Sophia Britt, senior project accountant at DPR Construction with an 8-month-old, said that, while childcare is expensive, it’s worth it.
“I feel like we can justify every single penny spent because (my child’s) current daycare provides such an amazing quality of care that has given me the peace of mind to continue my career,” Britt said.
That’s another piece of the childcare puzzle, said Rude — for parents to recognize that the quality of care their children receive early on provides befits for their overall health and wellbeing later.
“Economist James Heckman did a variety of research on economic outcomes as related to high quality care, whether it’s making sure parents can focus now or how long-term, high-quality care is investing in your future workforce — kids who have developed soft skills and self-regulation because they’re in environments that foster that.”
Resources for parents
Kraemer said the biggest obstacles in her search for childcare have been time and stress.
“Time to research, visit sites, interview nannies, figure out tax law for household employees, check references,” she said. “Calling, emailing and visiting so many sites and trying to keep track of them all … No space; being told over and over they were full or had waitlists up to several months or years long. Looking for the right fit and feeling good about the space.
“I’ve joked with other mom friends that it’s like picking a therapist or a pastor, it has to be a good fit for you and your child and not everyone will agree on what that good fit will be.”
So what can a parent do? Patten advised calling 2-1-1 Childcare, a statewide call center that provides information and referrals to licensed childcare centers, family childcare, before and after school programs, Head Start, nanny agencies and more.
“These are not recommendations, but referrals,” said Patten. “If they are struggling with the 2-1-1 system or not finding success there, they can call Childcare Partners (541-506-6131).”
There’s not a lot available, however, she cautioned, and they might not have an answer. But they will help where they are able.
“We know how important quality is,” she said. “We want to give parents quality options.”
Those interested in becoming childcare providers are encouraged to call Child Care Partners for more information.
“I’m happy to work with anyone who’s considering childcare,” Patten said, adding that she is currently working with a couple of people in Hood River County looking to open childcare facilities.
Rude said that, while unemployment is low, “we’ve also got people who are struggling to find qualified candidates” for childcare.
Continuing education classes are available at Columbia Gorge Community College; Community Education classes are also available. Child Care Partners also has a newsletter with information regarding everything from statewide training and conferences to activity ideas.
More information can be found online at cgcc.edu/childcare/become-a-provider, www.cgcc.edu/childcare or by calling Child Care Partners at 541-506-6131.