The state of Maine mistakenly discouraged dozens of parents from applying for day care vouchers last year by telling them there was a waiting list, which did not exist.

The Department of Health and Human Services admitted this week that, for months after the list was eliminated, parents continued to receive letters telling them they would have to wait to receive the vouchers.

The vouchers are for a state-run program that helps lower-income residents pay for child care so they can work or attend school. Based on household income, they provide, on average, a $4,500 benefit to families.

About 2,600 children are served by the program, which costs $18.9 million a year and is funded mostly by the federal government. There was a waiting list until February 2013, when the DHHS shifted funds to trigger more federal grants to support the program.

But parents who applied for vouchers were still receiving form letters warning of a waiting list as recently as late last year.

DHHS officials said the department sent out erroneous information.

“We acknowledge that updates to the standard, automatically generated letter to new families who were seeking help for the first time did not occur as planned. The letter that referenced a wait list had been inadvertently sent as part of a large packet of information to prospective voucher recipients,” DHHS spokesman John Martins wrote in response to questions from the Portland Press Herald. “We have recently corrected this letter and are working on systemic process improvement to ensure that the appropriate information is shared.”

Martins did not say how many parents were given incorrect information, but said the department has “reached out” to the parents to let them know there is no waiting list.

Lori Moses, executive director of the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, a day care provider in Portland that has about 70 children enrolled, said the DHHS was giving out information that forced parents to put their lives on hold.

“This is about whether they can accept work or not and get off welfare,” she said. “This is life-altering.”

Moses said some parents told her that they had received letters saying the waiting list was two years long, and that they would be unable to afford to send their children to the nursery. She said the parents of about a quarter of the children in her center are using the vouchers to pay for day care.

Moses said she knew the waiting list had been eliminated by last summer, and she told parents who were seeking vouchers that they should pursue the aid despite the DHHS letters about a waiting list.

One parent said she had to postpone her plans to go to college until this year because of what the DHHS told her about a waiting list.

Ellie Fleming, a single mother with a 4-year-old son, said she applied for vouchers at a DHHS office in May, hoping to arrange for care so she could take classes at Southern Maine Community College in the fall. After the DHHS worker confirmed that she qualified for a voucher, the information was sent to Augusta.

Fleming subsequently got a letter from the DHHS telling her about the waiting list. She said she opted to continue working at Maine Medical Center as a nurse assistant until the day care aid came through.

Fleming said she was informed about the waiting list twice more, until she told a DHHS worker who she saw in December that Moses, at the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, had told her there was no longer a waiting list.

Fleming said the DHHS caseworker then told her she had learned “just this day” that the list was eliminated and Fleming could receive a day care voucher.

Fleming, who is taking courses at SMCC and plans to transfer to the University of New England to study dental hygienics, said that figuring out how to work three 12-hour shifts a week – sometimes overnight – while finding care for her son kept her awake at night.

“The anxiety that is attached to not having secure child care, I can’t describe to you,” she said.

Martins, the DHHS spokesman, said the waiting list began in April 2012 but was eliminated in February of last year, when the DHHS shifted $2.7 million in state funding to receive more federal grants.

“The language regarding the existence of a wait list was not removed from the letter when the wait list ended,” Martins said. “We have also worked with Information Technology to ensure the proper letter is in the automated system and that in the future, the appropriate letter will be sent.”

Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com