Diana Smith never expected to become the primary guardian of her two grandchildren.

But when the Oregon Department of Human Services deemed the kids’ parents unfit to keep them, Smith knew she needed to take them in.

Smith, an executive assistant at the United Community Action Network, said, “When they offered us to bring the children into our home, of course, we said yes, because the alternative would have been stranger foster care.”

Her grandson was six months old and her granddaughter was 22 months old, and she needed to find child care because she and her husband work full-time.

She immediately struggled to find it — an experience working families across the state are familiar with.

All 36 counties in Oregon are considered “child care deserts,” according to a 2018 report from the Oregon Child Care Research Partnership. Child care deserts are defined as a place where there are three or more children for every child care spot at licensed facilities.

In Douglas County, 17% of children ages 0 to 5 have access to licensed child care. Not only are child care spots scarce, they’re expensive, which makes low and middle-income families most likely to be unable to access care. The annual cost of child care in the county can be more than tuition at Oregon’s public universities, the partnership report showed.

Smith said she was lucky to find a spot for her granddaughter in the UCAN’s Early Head Start program shortly after the kids first came to her home. Early Head Start provides low-income families school preparatory child care at no cost for children ages 0 to 2. Head Start is for children ages 2 to 5.

“I can’t tell you what a wonderful program that is,” Smith said. “She needed a lot of attention and nurturing, and they provided that. Foster children come with problems, I hate to say it, but it’s just part of process when they’re taken from their homes, they’re usually in some kind of emotional state. Head Start was really my saving grace.”

But with 56 spots in Early Head Start, Smith wasn’t able to secure one for her 6-month-old grandson.

Infant and toddler child care is particularly scarce. Nine percent of children ages 0-2 in Douglas County have access to licensed child care, according to the partnership report. That’s compared to 24% of children ages 3-5. Statewide access for infants and toddlers is only slightly higher at 12%.

It’s far more expensive for child-care providers to take in infants and toddlers than preschool age children, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress. Among other additional costs, providers must hire more employees to care for infants and toddlers than they do for preschool aged children. In Oregon, there must be one adult for every four infants and toddlers — compared to one adult for every 10 preschool aged child.

“The younger the children, of course, as you would suspect, the higher the ratio,” said Christy Cox, senior early childhood development program officer at The Ford Family Foundation. The higher ratio is necessary, but it’s also a barrier to sustaining enough infant and toddler child care spots, Cox said.

At first, a neighbor took care of Smith’s grandson. Three months later, her neighbor’s husband got hurt at work and her neighbor had to take a full-time job, Smith said.

She went on 211info.org — a nonprofit that started as a three-digit phone information service for people searching for child care.

“I didn’t have any luck because most of the people were full or a lot of them weren’t in business anymore,” Smith said.

Smith found a day care for her grandson on craigslist.com, but shortly after, the provider said she couldn’t continue caring Smith’s grandson because he was too needy, Smith said.

“Then I put him in a day care at a church,” Smith said. “Evidently they had too many children in their care, so when they came to be inspected, they closed them down.

“It was quite a few in the first year. And that’s really hard on a child, to put them in the hands of a stranger and then have it not work out. Being bounced around like that, it was really hard on all of us.”

Smith also dealt with facility closures for her granddaughter when she aged out of Early Head Start. The first place her granddaughter attended following Early Head Start closed after three months, Smith said.

Her day care situation is more stable now, she said. At the start of the recent school year, her grandson, 3, became eligible for Head Start. He currently spends the mornings there and the afternoons at Busy Bee’s Neighborhood Daycare in Roseburg. Her granddaughter spends the whole day at Grace Family Child Center in Roseburg.

Smith said constantly shuffling facilities was only part of her difficulties. All of her paid time off goes to staying home with the kids when they’re sick, and she hasn’t had a lunch break that didn’t involve driving at least one kid from morning care to afternoon care in years.

She said she’s lucky to have an employer who’s flexible with unexpected child care issues.

“I think women just end up not working,” Smith said.

Her suspicion is supported by data, according to another recent report from the Center for American Progress. Women who cannot find and afford child care rely on a patchwork of friends and family, resort to unlicensed facilities that are cheaper but have little oversight or stop working.

That has substantial impacts on the economy overall, according to the report.

“American businesses lose an estimated $12.7 billion annually because of their employees’ child care challenges,” the report says. “Nationally, the cost of lost earnings, productivity and revenue due to the child care crisis totals an estimated $57 billion each year.”

The child care crisis has prompted lawmakers at all levels of government to propose policy changes. A bill currently in the Oregon State Legislature would allow low-income working families who receive DHS child care subsidies to pay no more than seven percent of their household income on copayments.

In February, Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley along with 33 other lawmakers proposed a bill that would, among other provisions, allow families below 150% of the state median income to pay no more than seven percent of their household income on child care.

Additionally, organizations such as Care Connections & Education are working with educational institutions in Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties to help unlicensed day care facilities become licensed, education-based facilities with more children and staff. The organization provides technical assistance and training to help potential child care provers navigate the complicated process of starting a new business.

Many child care providers like Kelly Heichel, who runs Kelly’s Kid Care out of her home in Roseburg, start out because they want to care for their own young children, and taking in other families’ children allows them to do that.

After starting out running a day care for a few neighbors twenty years ago, Heichel’s facility is now a certified family care home. Her daughter works at the facility and is studying early childhood education.

“I get at least three calls a day from people looking for a spot,” Heichel said. She’s always full with 16 children — the maximum for her type of facility.

“It’s tough, but I always try to help them find a spot,” she said. When Diana Smith called her looking for spots, she was full, but she directed Smith to local resources such as 211info.org.

Heichel recently received a $5,000 grant from The Ford Family Foundation. The foundation has been awarding grants and helping child care providers stay in business and expand. Christy Cox, with the foundation, said they’ve also been working closely with Care Connections to remove barriers to entering the industry.

Heichel said the grant was essential, because providing care is expensive too. She said her profits equate to less than a minimum-wage rate.

“I was able to rebuild a fence that was falling down,” Heichel said. “I was able to put this new countertop on, because it was being destroyed. I was able to buy outdoor equipment.”

She was also able to buy new books for the kids, which allowed them to take older books home.

“This extra boost was able to give me the materials and supplies I need to make my program even better.”

Max Egener can be reached at megener@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4217. Or follow him on Twitter @maxegener.

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City Reporter

Max Egener is the city reporter for The News-Review. He has a master's degree from the University of Oregon, and is an avid skier and backpacker.

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