I-Team: NC parents worry about lack of child care

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Your frustration is also fact: there really are fewer child care providers now in North Carolina than in years past.

According to data obtained by the ABC11 I-Team, more than 3,000 licensed child care centers and homes have closed since 2005, a 35 percent decrease in less than 15 years. The population of children under six in North Carolina, meanwhile, has grown by more than 40,000.

The Tar Heel State, thus, has become what the Center for American Progress calls a "Child Care Desert" - an area where there are either no child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many children under age five as there are spaces in those centers.

"A feeling of desperation"

As if buying a new home isn't hard enough, Heba Atwa is also trying to balance life with a new baby, a new job and her new city. Atwa, who relocated to the Triangle from New Mexico, recalls being warned about finding child care before her daughter was born.

"They were telling me it could be years, especially to get into the most desirable childcare centers," Atwa told ABC11. "I was not only terrified but it was a feeling of desperation. Any mother is absolutely and completely focused on ensuring the absolute best for the child, but as a new mom there's a new element of can I do this and can I do this well?"

Many friends told Atwa to get on waiting lists at multiple child care centers, and some slots did open up, but Atwa would have to pay to reserve that spot before her daughter could enroll.

"It's not a small amount of money and I have to think about paying utilities, paying for other types of care for my child, paying for my mortgage, my car."

Atwa said she looked at dozens of care centers throughout Wake County, and finally picked one for her daughter. The next challenge, though, was figuring out how to pay.

"I'm talking about another mortgage for full-time care," Atwa, a single mom, lamented to ABC11. "If you have one income, that's not doable. Even if you have two incomes that's not doable."

Fewer options, rising costs

Heba Atwa's challenge is shared by thousands of families in the Triangle and across the state. As the cost of living rises, the pressure for both parents in the family to work full-time also rises.

In 2017, 67 percent of children under six had all parents in the workforce, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Ideally, then, an ample supply of child care providers could afford parents the ability to maintain those jobs while also ensuring the safety and healthy development of their children. If early care isn't available, parents are forced to either work fewer hours - and risk economic uncertainty for their family - or worse, rely on informal and unregulated arrangements that may not meet a child's needs.

"If we help those children become more successful in school - and that is the promise of early education - then they're going to be more successful in life," Michele Rivest, Policy Director at NC Early Education Coalition, explained to ABC11. "You want to keep families working, you want to keep them earning, you want them to keep supporting our economy."

According to the Coalition, there are now 5.3 infants and toddlers for each licensed child care slot in North Carolina, well above the threshold for a "child care desert." Even in Wake County, which is one of just five counties with up to 300 child care centers, the desert description still fits the bill. Rural areas, by contrast, tend to have the least quality infant-toddler care available.

Across the state, the average cost for infant and toddler child care range is between $7,000 to $10,000 a year. Some parents, however, tell the I-Team those figures are lower than reality.

Parents, though, are not the only ones complaining of the high costs.

Cassandra Brooks, who owns and operates Little Believers Academy, told the I-Team it's becoming exceedingly difficult to keep her business open and provide child care to so many families.

"It has crossed my mind that I could go into another business and go back into corporate America and make a lot of money," Brooks lamented, noting her past career at IBM. "It costs so much for the quality that you receive. The expenses of the staff, the expenses of the building. All that equals up and goes right out the door."

In North Carolina, licensed child care centers like Little Believers must follow strict teacher-child ratios and other safety regulations.

"You think people who own these businesses must be really rich at this point, but it costs from the parents' angle and costs to be an owner," Brooks explained. "The only thing that I think has drawn me to this is I enjoy working with families, helping children and seeing them grow and develop."

Lowering costs on her end, Brooks says, really isn't an option.

"I think if you lower costs than you will lower the potential for our future. If you don't want a quality workforce, then yes we could lower costs and just hire anybody, including people without education and without credentials to be able to work with children."

Taxpayer investment

If costs keep rising and centers keep closing, then what can make the pendulum swing the other way?

The Early Education Coalition, the NC Early Childhood Foundation shared with ABC11 that early investments matter.

"We know right now only about 39 percent of our third graders are reading on grade level. We are losing kids as they move through the system because we're not giving them a strong start in the beginning," Mandy Ableidinger, the Foundation's Policy and Practice Leader, told ABC11. "Without early education, society then pays later when those kids who haven't had the educational opportunities end up in the juvenile justice system, in the child welfare system, on welfare, and not being able to have a job that supports their families."

Currently, more than 80,000 North Carolina children in low-income families receive some government subsidies for child care, at a cost of nearly $400 million of mostly federal grants (there are more than 30,000 eligible children on the waitlist).

State budget writers are currently finalizing proposals for the 2020-2021 biennium budget, which include hundreds of millions of dollars for NC PreK and Smart Start programs.

A spokeswoman for NC DHHS says a needs assessment and a strategic plan are being created as part of our Preschool Development Grant, and because increasing access to high-quality programs is also part of the NC Early Childhood Action Plan, we would expect that both identifying barriers to programs opening and families accessing them, will be highlighted and addressed in that plan.
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