Dollars for child-care assistance drying up
Parents take a hit, as do the centers
Low-income families long have been able to rely on a federal program that provided them cash to help pay for child care, enabling parents to hold down a job, seek work or go back to school.
But a steady decline in program funding, coupled with a recession that has drained other sources of revenue, resulted in a months-long freeze on financial assistance in Mesa County.
That has put the squeeze on hundreds of mothers and fathers who have quit their jobs or simply stopped looking for employment, as well as on local day-care-center operators who have had to trim staff and staffing hours because of slipping enrollment.
“It affects those parents out there who need (assistance) the most,” said Stepping Stones Children’s Center owner Bobby Johnson, who estimated enrollment at the center’s two locations at 715 N. Seventh St. and 524 29 Road is down 20 to 30 percent from last year.
The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program is a federally funded initiative that offers monthly stipends to needy families. The program, which is administered locally by the Mesa County Department of Human Services, covers families whose income is up to 225 percent of the federal poverty level. More residents are eligible for child-care dollars than many low-income-assistance programs because officials want to encourage parents to continue working or stay in school, according to Sue Tuffin, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center.
The number of program dollars funneled to the county steadily declined, however, from $3.2 million in 2007 to $2.5 million this year, Tuffin said.
The county traditionally made up for that shortfall by transferring funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a pot of money that has leftovers during healthy economic times. But a double-digit unemployment rate dried up that backup funding source.
Without funding, the county started a waiting list Oct. 1, and the list has grown to more than 200 parents, Tuffin said. The county still accepts child-care-assistance applications, but it isn’t processing most of them, a scenario that likely won’t change until the economy begins to recover and the county’s TANF caseload starts to ease.
The result? The program can’t fulfill its goal of freeing up parents to work to earn money for their families.
“There have been parents who have come in who have a job at McDonald’s, and they apply for child-care assistance and can’t get it, so they quit their job,” said Diana Hardin, director of Kiddin’ Around Learning Center, which has experienced a 10 percent drop in enrollment.
At Stepping Stones, where as many as three-fourths of the clients receive child-care subsidies, Johnson had to cut three to five hours a week off his employees’ work schedules.
Johnson said care providers also have been hampered by a troublesome new state computer system that manages the Child Care Assistance Program. Previously, parents receiving subsidized care signed their children in and out of care on a sheet of paper. The centers then manually submitted bills to the state and received reimbursement.
Now, under an automated system, parents swipe a card each time they drop off and pick up their child. But bugs in the system have led to payments not being processed, incorrect reimbursement amounts and providers being paid for children who were never in their care, according to Johnson.
Greta David, director of Kinder Haus Learning Center, 2880 Elm Ave., said the number of families receiving subsidized care at her facility is half of what it used to be. And parents who can afford to fully fund their children’s care on their own are bringing in their kids an average of just two days a week.
As a result, she said, Kinder Haus has cut the number of its employees from 18 to 15 and closed the center’s toddler room.