Green Mountain child care crisis: Legislators and nonprofits work to ease the blow for working families

Courtesy photo
Carla Galaise with her son, Eli. Galaise spent months trying to navigate Vermont’s child care landscape on a budget.

MADELINE CLARK
Staff Writer

When Carla Galaise learned she was pregnant, she quickly called child care centers to get on waiting lists. Almost everyone she shared her news with had warned her to do so.

It’s estimated 50 percent of Vermont’s infants and toddlers who need child care do not have access to a regulated facility or early learning program, according to state research.

Noting the challenge child care poses to young Vermont families, lawmakers set to work this session. Gov. Phil Scott prioritized the issue in his January budget address, proposing an additional $7 million for the child care system to make care more accessible for low-income and working families.

In March, the House passed H.531 in an effort to make more affordable child care opportunities across the state and to better compensate the workers who provide it.

On May 2, the amended bill was referred by the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Representative Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, told The Other Paper she is positive the bill will pass this session.

“The issue of child care is one of these things that has been building for more than 10 years,” Pugh said, adding during her campaign this past fall it was “consistently the most talked about issue.”

A single mom grapples with child care costs

Carla Galaise’s unborn child was about to join the 50 percent of Vermont infants and toddlers without access to regulated child care. On top of the state’s challenging care landscape, Galaise was struggling with her relationship. She had gone along with her partner’s abusive ways for a time, but her pregnancy was a stark awakening: she needed to act. Although her heart was in Vermont, she packed her bags and moved to Missouri to live with her partner’s parents.

But the pull of the Green Mountains was strong, and within two months Galaise headed back to Vermont. She was nine months pregnant and soon went into labor. She brought her baby boy home from the hospital to no child care and a partner whose heroin addiction kept him out of work. Although her C-section called for eight weeks of rest, finances forced her back to work after six.

Galaise and her partner searched fervently for a high-quality, affordable child care center for their son, Eli.

“Once we started looking into child care … we realized there was no way we could afford it,” she said.

Indeed, child care can cost more than college tuition. For some families, care expenses consume 40 percent of household income, according to state research.

Meanwhile, Galaise grappled with the stress of her relationship. Eventually, she left her partner and, with Eli, went to live in the shelter at Steps to End Domestic Violence. They stayed for four months. During that time, Galaise got a job in Burlington but still had to transport Eli to a home-based child care center in Shelburne. Galaise and her son then moved into Steps transitional housing in the New North End. They spent two hours each day on the commute to Shelburne and back.

“We’d have to wake up like an extra hour-and-a-half early,” she said. “By the time we got home, I’d have to feed him and quick put him to bed. I had no time at all with my son.”

Faced with the long commute and the unaffordable cost of care closer to home, Galaise began looking at unregistered child care centers.

“I can’t even describe how alarming some of them were,” she said, adding some homes had kids gated in rooms, dirty and naked. Others, she said, reeked of marijuana. “It was disheartening.”

She got her son into a new, registered care center in Colchester, but was disappointed to find it wasn’t a good fit. The walls were bare. Eli frequently came home sick and cried almost every morning from separation anxiety. Plus, the care fees were putting Galaise in the red.

“I never, never had extra money. Not even a few dollars,” Galaise said. “It was a really stressful time, and knowing at that time that he was not in good care, it was a really hopeless feeling.”

Still, she felt a duty to get Eli into a better center. She tried the Shelburne home she had initially used – no longer caring about the long drive. Unfortunately, it was full. Galaise then called Ascension Child Care Inc., a center on Shelburne Road, where she had previously placed Eli on a waiting list. The receptionist told her a software malfunction had bumped her off that list.

“I started crying on the phone,” she said.

The receptionist invited her to come in the following day for an interview. She walked into Ascension armed with a four-page letter about what that care would mean for Eli. The following week, she called to see if there were any openings. As luck would have it, there was an open seat.

“I just started bawling,” Galaise said. “I was just so over-the-moon ecstatic.”

Galaise witnessed a positive, instant change in Eli after he started at Ascension. Plus, she felt relief knowing he was in good hands. But, soon the bills started rolling in. Ascension cost about $75 more per week than the last center he had attended.

“[It] added up to an absurd amount which I couldn’t afford, and that was with a child care resource supporting me,” Galaise said.

The president of the bank where she worked gave her a promotion, but that bumped her over the benefits cliff; her pay increase made her ineligible for the aid she’d been getting.

“Instantly, I was even more in debt,” she said.

It’s scenarios like Galaise’s that prompted legislators to include measures in the bill turning the benefits cliff into a “bunny slope,” Pugh said.

Eventually, with hard work, Galaise managed to break even. Having Eli well cared for made it all worthwhile, she said.

Galaise was able to start dating again and look to a new career path. Today, she is engaged and living happily with her fiancé and son. But, she said, if anything happened to her fiancé or their relationship, she would be “right back in the system.”

“I’d have to either step down to part time and live off the state, or I’d have to move back down to Connecticut where the rest of my family is,” she said. “I’d have to leave Vermont.”

That’s why Galaise shares her story. She hopes it’ll make a difference and inspire action around the state’s child care crisis.

“When the government is having difficulties deciding the importance of [child care], we’re showing to parents as well this is kind of like a second priority; it’s not important,’” she said. “We’re just making the issue worse. [Change] needs to come from the top down.”

Under the dome

In Montpelier, talks continue on H.531. The bill, crafted by the House Committee on Human Services, combined what legislators deemed were the key elements of six child-care proposals submitted to the committee this session, Pugh said.

“We would discuss each of the pieces in the bills and decide which made sense, which were part of the policy direction we wanted to go,” Pugh explained. “It wasn’t like a kitchen sink that we threw it all in.”

The bill passed the House and went to the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare in March, where senators reviewed and amended it. Health and Welfare referred the revised bill to the Senate Committee on Appropriations on May 2.

H.531, with Senate Committee on Health and Welfare amendments under draft 6.1, looks to increase the number of families who can obtain child care subsidies under the Child Care Financial Assistance Program. This would be accomplished in part by using current federal poverty guidelines as a basis for need assessment. In FY20, funds appropriated to the Department for Children and Families’ Child Development Division for the Early Care and Child Development Grant Program would be made available to the Child Care Financial Assistance Program. The proposal also calls for funding for infant and child care provider grants.

Another portion of the proposal calls for updates to the Bright Futures Information System. Bright Futures is the Vermont Department for Children and Families child care information services site. It’s used to manage child care and was created for Vermont in 2006, according to Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner for child development at the Department for Children and Families.

The proposed bill includes scholarships, paid internships and hiring bonuses for students interested in the child care profession. The program would provide grants for a combination of opportunities for students employed in regulated, privately-operated center-based child care programs and family child care homes.

H.531 also has a provision to allow providers certain exemptions from the Department for Children and Families’ educational requirements as a further method to keep providers’ costs down. But, Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D- Shelburne said, these individuals would still have to meet Department for Children and Families’ continuing educational requirements.

One measure Brumsted was particularly adamant about was having government accountability built into the proposal. Early versions, as well as the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare’s recommendations, contain a measure for the Department for Children and Families to file a report with the state on the impact of the child care measures by Jan. 1, 2024. The findings could help legislators make revisions as needed.

According to Pugh, lack of child care is one of the greatest barriers to moving families out of poverty, for parents to remain in the workforce and for businesses to retain employees.

“I cut my teeth as a social worker working with kids,” Pugh said. “It may seem trite, but children are our future. They’re the future employees, they’re the future parents, they’re the future business folks and legislators. They’re our future, bottom line.”

But, she added, solving the crisis isn’t solely about increasing the number of families who can obtain child care.

“Child care is a business as well. If the business doesn’t thrive, then it won’t be out there,” she said. “One of the issues is finding qualified people to provide child care and the other is sort of the payment.”

That’s why H. 531 aims to help providers with scholarships and student loan assistance, as well as education exemptions for experienced providers. In 2017, the median hourly pay for Vermont’s child care workers was about $12.71, according to the 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index.

Costs vs. kids

In a March interview with The Other Paper, Gov. Scott said he agrees with the goal of H.531 and is in favor of any action the state can take to fit his “cradle to career” vision. That vision sees Vermonters born, raised and remaining in the state.

“When we see 15,000 fewer workers employed now and we have an unemployment rate of 2.4 percent, the lowest since 1976, that’s a problem,” Scott said. “We need more people here. We’re going to have to do whatever we can.”

But Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s director of communications, said attracting young families to Vermont requires more than a “build it and they will come” model. Scott, she said, has proposed marketing initiatives and investment in recruitment to aid on that front.

Another challenge is finances.

“We have to spend within our means. We can’t continue to raise taxes every time we have a problem to solve,” Scott said.

His proposed budget called for an additional $7 million for the state’s child care system, while the House proposal called for $10.5 million.

“I had a different approach to the funding, but again, we’ll work all that out,” Scott said.

Boots on the ground: Nonprofit works to ease the burden

In 2018, state nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids launched its “Make Way for Kids” grant program, with the support of both state and national donors. In 2018 and 2019 combined, the program will invest $1.7 million which will result in an additional 1,300 child care seats, according to Janet McLaughlin Let’s Grow Kids chief of programs and interim CEO.

“We’re not just asking for change, we’re making change by partnering with and investing in communities across Vermont to help more children access high-quality child care right now,” McLaughlin said at a press conference last month.

Indeed, with donations from individuals and foundations, Let’s Grow Kids will be able to finance about 24 child care projects across 10 counties. Some of the work includes adding seats to existing child care programs, renovating/creating centers and working with early educators to start programs.

According to Let’s Grow Kids Secretary Dan Smith, an “opportunity gap” is one of the largest challenges facing the next generation of Vermonters.

“If you were a kid born in 1940, you had a 90 percent chance of earning more than your parents did,” Smith said. “If you’ve been born since 1980, you have a 50/50 shot. Those prospects are largely determined by who your parents were and, frankly, where you were born.”

Excellent child care helps level the playing field.

“The first five years represent a critical time in human development,” Smith said. “When a child doesn’t get the nurturing care they need at a young age, they arrive at school less prepared to learn and the opportunity gap … continues to widen from that point forward.”

Ascension Child Care Inc. in Shelburne was among the 2018 Make Way For Kids grant recipients. The $35,000 award helped them update their facilities and obtain the permits needed to enroll 13 additional children at the center. Since Ascension opened in 1989, it has increased its allowed student seats from 33 to 85, permitting about 120 parents to go to work each day, center director Katie Gonyaw said. This year is also Ascension’s first paying a $15 minimum wage.

Although the center has many families who can pay care fees, about 17 percent need a state subsidy to help cover costs. Like countless other centers across the state, Ascension gets multiple calls per day from families inquiring about open spots. Sometimes, couples who aren’t yet pregnant ask to get on the waiting list, according to Gonyaw. Ascension is happy to put them on the list.

“Children need a community to support them,” Gonyaw said. “By having awareness of our children and their needs, we will change the world in a big and small way.”

Solution on the homefront?

Despite the push for more and high-quality child care, there are critics of H.531. One criticism has been that parents should wait to have children until they can afford them.

Indeed, Pugh said a fellow committee member once contended that, in his day, people didn’t need this assistance. But, she added, he came to realize times and circumstances had changed.

“Families can’t do this alone,” she said of his realization. “What once was possible and feasible, and the way, is no longer.”

The fix is not solely the state’s responsibility, Pugh said. Parents should speak with their local representatives and with the businesses that employ them, she said. Employers could consider adding child care to their benefits or pay to reserve spots at local child care centers for their employees’ children, she added.

“None of us can say it’s their job to address this,” Pugh said. “Family, schools, community, the state and businesses: It’s all of us who need to come together.”

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