By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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"That shows how hard it is to keep the entry-level provider engaged," says Mauzy. "Some of them quit, changed jobs, had family emergencies that required them to find a job that paid more."
Last September, in an effort to improve quality of care, Missouri began paying 20 percent more to subsidized providers who get accredited by a state or national organization. They can also receive another 30 percent if more than half of the children they serve are subsidized children. The state also pays an extra 15 percent for evening and weekend care and another 25 percent for special-needs children.
But so far, of 2,921 subsidized facilities, only 89 -- or 3 percent -- have been accredited.
A parent looking for quality, affordable care can become discouraged.
Corey Burns, who is in the midst of a divorce and has custody of his three children -- ages 2, 3 and 5 -- began looking for child care three months ago. He needs off-hours care because he works at least two nights a week. He's visited a dozen facilities looking for good care that he can afford. No dice. "You go to some of these places, and sometimes the workers are saying, 'I don't know if you want to be here. I don't know if I'm going to be here next week. I don't know if she's going to have anybody.' It makes you kind of leery," says Burns. "If they don't have a staff, they can't operate." He's seen other problems: "The majority of them don't seem to have degreed teachers or a real curriculum set up. It's 'We're here. We can make sure they're alive when you get back,' and that's that.
"I saw providers that were overwhelmed, and I mean the people, the actual staff there," Burns continues. "I don't know what the acceptable ratio is, but maybe you have two providers to 12-14 children, and they're looking haggard and they're looking tired. Along with them being haggard and tired out and that, you see it in the kids. Yeah, you've got your snotty nose here and a diaper that's past over there, but when you see six or 10 kids looking like we could really use another hand around here, it makes you think. You can give them the nicest facility in the world, a nice gated outfit and a backyard with some good toys, but when the people caring for the kids are tired and unappreciated, it definitely has an effect on the kids."
There is the issue of cost. Burns says he believes he can qualify for child-care subsidy from the state, and he will pay as little as $3 a day per child. But if a raise pushes his earnings up to more than $441 a week, gross income -- not much for a man raising three children -- he gets no subsidy at all. At his current salary, he estimates that on his own, without a subsidy, he would pay $75 per child per week, and his take-home pay after that would be just $150 a week.
Subsidized providers, meanwhile, are paid only the median cost of child care in the metro area; prices vary on the basis of location and the child-to-staff ratio of the center. For the care of an infant, for example, the state will pay a provider just $128.75 a week, or about $557 a month. The La Petite Academy in Bridgeton charges $600 a month for an infant, a KinderCare in West County charges $740 a month, and the Martha Rounds Academy for Children in Brentwood charges $928. Centers that provide a lower ratio of children to staff than that required by the state, such as 3-1 for infants and toddlers instead of 4-1, can cost as much as $870-$1,380 a month. Many have long waiting lists, especially for infant care.
In the current climate, state regulation can be the last defense to protect the health and safety of children in child care -- and that line of defense is often weak and inadequate.
William Gormley, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, is one of the few researchers who has conducted extensive research on regulation and its effect on the quality of child care. In Vermont, he documented how the state's decision to make fewer visits to higher-quality centers to spend more time at problem centers actually led to a decline in quality at those "good" centers. One of the greatest problems today, he says, is weak enforcement when violations are discovered.
"Child-care regulatory enforcement is really the weak link in the child-care chain," Gormley says. "Every state has child-care standards that cover things like child-to-staff ratios, education and training requirements, safety requirements for playgrounds, but they don't mean much unless they are enforced." Most of the time, he says, they are not: "The unfortunate truth is that even demonstrably bad daycare centers are unlikely to be shut down. A child-care licensor has to convince her supervisor this is a very serious matter, has to convince an assistant attorney general this is a very serious matter, has to convince an administrative-law judge or an actual judge that the center should have its license revoked. It's a very protracted legal process in most states."