Raindrops splattered the sidewalk outside Laurie Peterson’s North Division apartment as she burned up the phone lines, desperate, angry, confused.
Her regular day care provider had closed down with no notice. Don’t bring your kids here tomorrow, she was told. Day care after day care told her it didn’t have room for her three boys. A single mom, she couldn’t get time off work, and couldn’t afford it anyway.
“I was a complete basket case,” said Peterson. “I had no idea it was that hard.”
Peterson found a day care three days later, but not before she learned a tough lesson in the realities of the child care industry. Finding a good day care provider is harder than finding a reliable mechanic.
It’s particularly hard in some of the North Side’s less-affluent neighborhoods. In Nevada-Lidgerwood, West Central and Hillyard day cares are packed. There are no openings at all around Whitman Elementary in northeast Spokane. Also pinched are the two-income household areas around Mead.
The result: working parents are often unable to enroll their kids in facilities near home or work.
“It’s a neighborhood problem that I don’t think a lot of people know about,” said Kathy Thamm, program manager for Family Care Resources, a child care placement agency.
Thamm and others said there is a day care shortage on the North Side for a number of reasons: Many parents want a day care near their work, said Thamm. In dense commercial areas like North Division, there just aren’t enough to go around.
Stronger enforcement by state inspectors increased the problem of availability, say child care providers. The state has temporarily closed or suspended the licenses of at least six Spokane day cares, including two on the North Side. Unexpected closures force lots of parents to go looking, often in the same area.
There is a huge turnover, particularly in the small, in-home centers. About 60 percent close each year, sending parents looking.
Strict caps on the day-care size limit openings. If a provider has kids - and most do - they count toward the limit. Most centers can only take two infants. “Infant care is a nightmare,” said Thamm.
Help is available. Thamm’s office is a non-profit clearinghouse, with day care providers listed by neighborhood. For a fee that depends on a parent’s income, Family Care Resources will hunt for openings.
A few business are taking note. Goodale Barbieri and Deaconess Medical Center run in-house day cares downtown. Thamm said she doesn’t know of any North Side businesses offering day care.
State Rep. Lisa Brown, a Democrat who represents Spokane’s Third District, introduced a bill last legislative session that would have given tax breaks to businesses following their lead. It wasn’t approved.
But providers say without serious changes in the industry, problems will continue. They believe poor wages keep many people from opening day cares, and force many to close after a short time.
“You can’t survive on what I make,” said Jody Knott, a North Side day care provider. She says she makes about $1.50 per child per hour.
“If you do it right, you don’t make money,” said Nancy Gerber, past president of a regional day care organization.
Providers say they can’t get away with charging more. Day care costs typically run at least $320 per child monthly, more than most car payments.
“It’s about priorities,” said Linda Ernst, head of the licensing arm of the Spokane Child and Family Service office. “Are our children as important as our new car? We need to assess the value of children.”
Parents, on the other hand, say they can’t afford more. Rachelle Sorensen, a substitute teacher, sold the family boat to afford day care for 10-month-old Colton.
“We hadn’t thought about how much it costs to have kids,” said Sorensen, sighing. After two months of looking, she hasn’t found a provider.
Economic issues are more difficult in the pockets of poverty on the North Side. The state gives working poor parents like Laurie Peterson subsidies, but there are far fewer providers in areas like West Central than in Indian Trail, Thamm said.
Peterson discovered that. She was so frustrated that she considered quitting her $750 per month job as an auto parts clerk and returning to welfare. “It is so difficult being a single working mom,” she said.
Some potential providers are hesitant to open day cares in poor areas because the state subsidy covers only about 75 percent of regular rates, said Shannon Selland, policy director for the Eastern Washington Family Day Care Association.
Some neighborhood organizations have recently stepped in to help.
In response to dozens of requests from parents, the West Central COPS shop opened a day camp that has attracted more than 140 kids. Despite a shoestring budget, the program does not charge and continues to accept kids.
“This neighborhood has lots of single parents that can’t be at home,” said Louise Stamper, organizer of the day camp.
Hillyard Vista volunteer Erin Hayes looked into the possibility of the Northeast Community Center opening a day care.
Hayes’s report questioned whether such a center could stay afloat financially. The neighborhood steering committee is still considering the issue.
Spokane School District 81 expanded before- and after-school day care from 20 schools three years ago to 31 schools this year. The district is opening a day care this fall at Bemiss Elementary for low-income families.
“It’s not like when we were younger and mom was home or grandma was home,” said Lisa Karl, assistant director of the district’s child care office. “If there wasn’t these programs … where would the kids go?”
Holy Family Hospital is working with Emerson-Garfield providers to improve availability in that neighborhood.
No solution has been reached, but Linda Crabtree, the Holy Family administrator working on the project, said she was surprised by the response from providers and parents.
“Child care is such a pathetic situation and it is such cultural issue,” said Crabtree. “There is a tough issue out there, but if there’s energy out there, something will get done. There’s a definite need.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CALL FOR HELP For help in finding day care, call Family Care Resources at 484-0048.
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