Many Maine law enforcement leaders agree that our child care’s early learning programs are essential and should be treated as such by policymakers at all levels of government.

First, many essential workers, including law-enforcement officers and corrections officers, need a trusted place for their own young children while they are at work. They need to know their kids are being safely cared for so that they can serve their communities well. The closure of some programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new challenge in finding the child care these parents need to be able to go to work with peace of mind.

Second, quality child care and early learning programs are good long-term crime prevention tools. Kids who participate in these programs, particularly at-risk kids, are more likely to get a strong, healthy start in life that puts them on a path to begin school ready to learn. That path includes educational success that can make them more likely to become productive, law-abiding adults.

Third, child care programs are a literal safe haven for some children. Not every kid is safe at home, and the concern for child abuse and neglect is especially prevalent during stressful times like those created by the pandemic.

I appreciate Gov. Mills’ recent decision to direct $8.4 million of Maine’s $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help support Maine’s fragile child care infrastructure. In addition, Congress previously provided $11 million in federal Child Care Development Block grant funding to Maine’s child care workforce. These are both great starts, but our state needs more resources to ensure that our child care sector is here for working parents both during and beyond the pandemic.

It is my hope that, as we gain clarity around our state budget and additional federal supports, Gov. Mills and state policymakers will fully fund the child care recommendations from Gov. Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee. The Committee endorsed investing $20 million to support child care providers for our youngest children and $25 million to support child care for school-age children so that they can safely return to school and their parents can return to work. We also hope this unique situation will create more partnerships between public schools and child care providers, and that policymakers will encourage and incentivize such partnerships.

Generally, child care providers are dependent primarily upon tuition from parents and receive little government support. As parents have kept their children home, most providers are facing unprecedented financial losses. Many have been struggling to maintain and pay their staff while continuing to pay monthly expenses such as rent and utilities. As they are reopening, they have less income because of lower group sizes (on average, the Maine Office of Child and Family Services is reporting child care programs are operating at 65 percent of capacity), yet higher costs due to their need for personal protective equipment, and increased cleaning supplies.

Child care workers are largely underpaid, and programs already operated very close to the margins before the pandemic. Without additional investments from the state and Congress, many child care businesses will be unable to continue to operate at a financial loss. Maine’s economy and its working families, especially our first responders, cannot afford to lose more of our child care sector.

Child care and early learning programs are more important than ever, but they’re essential under any circumstances. Our lawmakers should support and prioritize them in a way that reflects that reality.

Joel Merry is the Sagadahoc County sheriff and member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

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