March 13, 2010

Child care centers feel pinch


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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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Staff Writer

Child care centers that have kept waiting lists for years are now advertising to fill openings. Some centers are struggling to make ends meet, as costs rise and enrollments decline. A few have shut their doors.

The stalling economy has begun to take a toll on Maine's child care providers, as parents lose jobs or look for ways to cut expenses.

''One of the first indicators of the economy is child care. (Parents) get a pink slip, and they come pick up their child and say, 'I don't need child care anymore,' '' said Lori Freid Moses, director of the University of Southern Maine's Child and Family Centers in Portland and Gorham. ''The other thing that's happening is parents are making different choices because they have a grandmother, a family member, a friend or a neighbor'' who can fill in, even part time.

''Initially, we were seeing it in Greater Portland,'' she said. ''And the more I talk to people, I see it throughout the state.''

Freid Moses said the USM centers have openings for the first time in years. Some of the parents shopping for care, she said, are coming from centers that recently closed, including the YMCA in Portland and On Our Planet in Cape Elizabeth.

An administrator at the YMCA said the drop in preschool enrollments in recent months was one of the factors behind the closure of its center on Oct. 31. The drop in demand followed a decline in outside grant funding, as well as increasing rent and utility costs, said Hildy Ginsberg, the executive director.

''It kind of tipped the decision,'' she said. ''We weren't filling the full-time slots as we were going to into fall. We didn't have a waiting list any longer. We'd had a waiting lost for a long period of time.''

The former operators of On Our Planet could not be reached.

There is no data in Maine or nationally that shows how many children are in child care. But providers around the country say the trend toward fewer children in child care is clear.

At a center in suburban Illinois, where half of the children have stopped coming in the past three months, their playmates are sensing the shift. ''They don't know what's happening. They're confused,'' said Diane Kesterton, director of New Horizons.

The trend appears to be just starting in Maine, where some day care providers are reporting declines and some are not. All, however, said they expect the economic fallout to increase.

''Usually at this time of the month, we see a lot more preschoolers registering,'' said Annette Hoglund, co-owner of Portside Learning Center in Portland.

Unlike infant care and toddler care, which typically are needed so parents can work outside the home, preschool is often a discretionary expense by parents who want to prepare their kids for school. The falling preschool enrollments are especially worrisome to child care centers because caring for preschoolers is more lucrative and helps cover the higher costs of providing infant care.

''You have to have a certain amount of enrollment to really survive,'' Hoglund said. Meanwhile, the rising cost of everything from toilet paper to snack foods is putting pressure on centers to raise rates even as parents are looking to cut costs, she said.

Portside has not lost any families to the economy yet, although some, including a parent who was laid off, have scaled back their hours. ''We've had people ask, 'Well, can I cut down to three days and have my mother help out?' '' Hoglund said. ''I'm worried right now. My enrollment is OK, but I watch the news every night.''

Sarah Mitchell takes her 3-year-old to Portside every day when she goes to work. But she and her husband recently adjusted their schedules so they could cut back the before-school and after-school care for their kindergartner.

Dropping from five days a week to three knocked their total child care bill down about $40 to $245 per week.

''Before, even when we had some flexibility (and might not need child care every day), we paid for five days,'' she said. ''We've always seen the mortgage and child care as fixed costs. You can't do anything with the mortgage, but this is a cost you can actually be creative with.''

The average child care center in Cumberland County charges $190 a week for infants and $162 a week for preschoolers, according to Child Care Connections, a referral service in Scarborough. The average in-home day care provider charges $144 for infants and $135 for preschoolers.

Over the course of the year, that can mean as much as $10,000 for one child.

Nationally, day care costs average from $3,380 to $10,787 a year for just one preschooler, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. The cost had climbed 5.2 percent from 2006 to 2007, said Linda Smith, the association's executive director.

Doris Jackson used to work in a child care center and recently began offering care in her Scarborough home. She said she can charge from $125 to $150 per week for full-time care, less then a typical center, because her costs are lower.

''I think more people are looking at in-home day care because it can be more reasonably priced,'' Jackson said.

Others also expect some parents to shift to less expensive care, whether in a center or a home. And that is not always a good choice for children, said Freid Moses.

Although price doesn't always equate to quality, ''it costs to have quality care,'' she said. ''The majority of care out there is mediocre. It's not poor, it's not dangerous, but it's also not great.''

The USM child care centers are nonprofit and do not break even, Freid Moses said. But as the cost of care, particularly for infants, has risen over time faster than wages, some parents are recalculating the value of working. ''I have parents who are thinking about quitting because of child care,'' she said.

Care providers are shy about predicting how bad, and how long, the downturn will be. But there is a strong sense that Maine providers are just starting to feel it.

''I think the winter will be a real test to programs that are struggling with energy costs,'' said Donna Brown, referral supervisor for Child Care Connections. ''I almost think we're seeing the start of it all.''

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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Gordon Chibroski


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