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Local parents caught in child care shortage

MORRIS -- When Katie and Travis Campbell found out they were expecting their second son, Caleb, they started investigating options for daycare.

They wanted to place Caleb with the same provider who cared for their five-year-old son, Carson, a woman they got along with and knew well. Because taking Caleb would have put their provider over state-mandated limits on the number of infants in her care, she applied for a variance immediately after Caleb was born.

Two-and-a-half weeks before Katie was set to go back to work at Morris Dental Clinic, the Campbells found out the variance was denied and they didn't have anyone to care for Caleb.

Over the next seven months, the Campbells scrambled to find a daycare for Caleb -- one provider they found moved, another switched careers, and others just didn't have the capacity to take another infant.

"There was a lot of crying involved," said Katie. "I enjoy my job and I was scared I would have to quit my job if I didn't find daycare."

The Campbell's struggle to find daycare in the area is not uncommon, said Elisa Ettesvold, a child care licensor with Stevens County Human Services.

In the last 18 months, the number of licensed day care providers in Stevens County has dropped from nearly 40 down to around 30. In August alone, four in-home daycares closed, said Ettesvold, creating a countywide day care shortage, especially for parents of infants and toddlers.

"I used to never get calls from parents looking for people who are in the process of getting licensed or the list of daycare providers -- in the last six months I've gotten an influx of that," said Ettesvold.

Sherry Tiegs, president of the Stevens County Child Care Association, estimated that more than 75 percent of local providers have been operating for more than 10 years. One recently-retired provider had been open for more than 30 years.

"A lot of these providers that have decided to do something different with their career have been doing it for years and years and years," said Tiegs. "There's a high burnout rate. ... When you do this for a living, it takes a special person who is in it for the long haul because you're dealing with a variety of people."

Getting a firm number for the child care capacity of Stevens County is tricky.

Each provider is licensed to care for maximum number of children, but that number fluctuates based on ratios set up in state statute and depends on how many children are newborns, infants, toddlers, preschoolers or school age. Many providers in Stevens County have a total capacity of 12 children, but of those 12 only two can be infants or toddlers. If a provider wants to take more infants or toddlers, they need to lower their total capacity or hire a second adult caregiver.

Many families are also looking for part-time care, meaning that at any given time numbers can be fluid, and a provider may, in total, care for more than their licensed number of children -- just not all at the same time, said Tiegs.

After the Cyrus Child Care Center closed this spring, Joni and Brad Heins searched for an in-home provider who could take their three children. Although they found a nanny to help through the summer, they had to hunt for care for their nearly two-year-old son.

"In that age range, it was next to impossible to find something," said Joni.

Joni said the family is still looking for a provider who can take their school age son and daughter during weather cancellations or other unexpected events. In the interim, before and after school programs like ZONE through Morris Community Education are a "huge relief" for late start days or other scheduled changes to the school schedule, Joni said.

Tiegs also praised the organized school programs for children, especially on late start or early dismissal days -- "we desperately need them." When daycare is tight, providers often can't hold a spot for school-age children, meaning kids may end up home alone without the school programs.

In addition to care for infants and toddlers, Tiegs said there is a demand for bilingual providers who can communicate effectively with Spanish-speaking families.

"As a daycare provider, I need to be able to communicate freely with those parents. A lot of the families I've talked to can speak English but I sometimes feel like a bilingual provider could communicate better with them," said Tiegs.

In order to help alleviate the shortage of licensed providers in the area, Ettesvold has planned an open house next week to provide information to people interested in potentially becoming a daycare provider.

Ettesvold will be at the Morris Public Library from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 16 to answer questions and begin the application process for those who are interested.

"We want to encourage people who want to get licensed to move forward with it," said Ettesvold.

Ettesvold estimated that the licensing process for a new provider can take between three and six months, but in the past the process has been completed in just a month. It often depends on what physical changes might need to be made to the space where the provider will be looking after children.

Tiegs encouraged people interested in becoming a childcare provider to think carefully about what it would mean for their family, and noted that communication is key between providers and families.

"For me, there's no more rewarding job than this -- it's rewarding but demanding," said Tiegs.

The Campbells' hunt for childcare ended for what they hope is a long time in September. After months of using their breaks for "calling and bugging" providers, Katie and Travis were able to place Caleb with their original provider when she received a short-term variance to take him.

This month, six-year-old Carlson is also in all-day, everyday kindergarten at Morris Area Elementary School, and he'll be able to join his brother at the same provider on days he has off from school.

"Now that we have daycare, it's a huge relief," said Katie. "Even though we have daycare, I still don't necessarily feel at ease because at any time we could find out we no longer have daycare, just like what has happened multiple times to us."