Cost, lack of providers create child care pinch

Jack Reyering
Rebecca Fuller of New Castle became a child care provider out of a common need in the region — she couldn't find anyone to watch her own child.
Jack Reyering / Post Independent |

First of two parts.

A swarm of children stumble across the living room in the home of Rebecca Fuller. They put toy dinosaurs in their mouths and struggle to pronounce the names to Fuller as she keeps a watchful eye on them. She plays with them, feeds them and puts them down for naps. She cares for them as if she were their mother, but she’s not.

Fuller cares for six children during the week, providing one of the most highly sought-after services in the area: child care.

Out of her home in New Castle, Fuller looks after the children, all under the age of 5, while their parents are at work. These parents are some of the lucky ones. Not only because they found one of the best child care providers in the state, but because they found one at all.

“There are just no options for them,” Fuller said. “Parents really have to find something for their kids almost before they even get pregnant.”

Fuller should know. She got into child care out of necessity.

“When I had my son, I couldn’t find anyone to look after him,” Fuller said. “I was working full time as a manager at a salon, but I had to stay home and look after him, and I started taking others in and fell in love with it.”

Fuller’s problem stemmed from high demand and the limited supply of child care providers. Due to high cost of living in our area, most families need two incomes.

It’s a problem that has changed little in recent years, and the biggest issues revolve around care for children 5 and younger.

“One thing that is true across the state is that there is such a shortage of infant and toddler care,” said Stacy Petty of the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council. “The cost of caring for a toddler far exceeds what we are able to charge.”

A year of child care can cost $14,000, said Jonathan Godes with the Early Childhood Network in Glenwood Springs. “To put that in perspective, college tuition of Colorado State costs $11,000 a year.”

Caring for children younger than 5 is much more complicated than caring for older children.

“What the families can afford and what we have to charge are off,” Petty said. “The ratios are lower and it costs more to care for a toddler, and it’s more stressful generally speaking because you lose money.”

Child care providers such as Fuller don’t make much money, and few people have the same attitude toward the job that Fuller does.

“You have to love it if you do it,” Fuller said. “I don’t know that it’s affordable. We try, but it’s still $225 a week per child.”

The first concern about child care is quality. Without quality services, it doesn’t matter how accessible or affordable it may be.

Colorado Shines is the state’s quality rating and improvement system for licensed early care and learning programs. It was launched in 2015 as a way to help families connect to facilities statewide. Now, all licensed child care providers are required to receive a rating from Colorado Shines in order to operate.

According to Colorado Shines, only 15 percent of the state’s 4,324 eligible programs received a high quality rating. Sixty-seven percent of the programs met only the basic health and safety standards.

Fuller is one of only two in-home providers in the state to receive the highest rating of 5 from Colorado Shines.

As providers work with Colorado Shines to improve their ratings, they find themselves with a paradoxical problem. What is the motivation to work toward a higher ranking when they are already earning so little? How do they improve the quality of care without spending more?

“With rising requirements of credentials, it puts a pinch on finding people with the right credentials,” Petty said. “We can’t find qualified people to run them.”

In a job that carries a lot of financial burdens, it is hard to make it attractive to qualified professionals.

“There are just not enough qualified people,” Godes said. “There aren’t enough people willing to turn over their house for 50 hours a week. The most them are probably making $10-18 an hour. Those are not the types of pay rates that are attracting the highest quality professionals.”

The same is true in child-care facilities. Some of the teachers and caretakers in child care facilities are paid absurdly low wages for their qualifications. Early childhood educators with college degrees often barely make above minimum wage.

“It doesn’t really sound like a great option for them,” Petty said. “Working for $9 an hour with no benefits. Until we can solve the pay issue, it’s always going to be a problem.”

Affordability of child care also presents a problem for the families. Prices of daily child care vary statewide depending on a variety of circumstances.

According to 2015 Colorado Child Care Market Rate Study, the statewide average cost of child care per day ranges from $51.23 to $68.73 at centers. In licensed homes, the prices range $38.00 to $43.77 per day.

Prices vary from county to county and depending on the age of the child. According to these numbers, the average cost statewide for five days of care a week can be as much as $343.65 at a child care facility.

Each county is rated on the cost of living index by the Colorado State Demographer. Of the 64 counties in Colorado, Pitkin County is ranked No. 1 with the highest cost of living, Eagle is No. 5 and Garfield is 12th.

According to the market rate survey, child care in a center for a baby up to 6 months old in the highest-cost counties can be as much as $74.99 a day. For a 6- to 12-month old, the price can reach as high as $74.29 per day.

Even if a family can afford care, they often cannot find it. Many child care centers have lists of 20-30 children waiting to get in.

“I don’t even know how many I have waiting right now,” Fuller said. “Most of the time, by the time I have a spot open, they have moved on. Their kids are either old enough now, or they’ve moved or they found unlicensed care.”

As families struggle to find affordable child care, and governments and nonprofits work toward solutions, Godes thinks that the perception of the profession has to change.

“Really for the people who are working in the field, historically its been viewed as glorified babysitting,” Godes said, “but as that is changing, we are trying to making the field more professional.”

Until then, families will have to struggle and compete for providers like Fuller to get the child care that they desperately need.

Tuesday: Ideas to solve the child care pinch.

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