Child care operators find seesaw demand

Surplus: With increased competition and a softening economy, caregivers have plenty of vacancies.

October 18, 2002|By Kristin Sette | Kristin Sette,SUN STAFF

Leah Hargest figured she would have an easy time attracting working parents to the family child care business she started in Elkridge a year and a half ago.

Hargest, after all, knew firsthand the difficulties of finding day care in Howard County.

When she worked in Columbia, she drove her daughter Taylor to a day care provider in Baltimore three days a week for two months before finding a place for the infant in Ellicott City.

In July of 2001, the Howard County Child Care Task Force reported that working parents in the county were having trouble finding care for children of any age, and that 51 percent of those surveyed reported an inability to find care for infants.

But now, thanks to an increase in the number of care providers and a softening of the economy, what had been described as a critical shortage of child care in Howard has turned into a surprising surplus.

Hargest has openings for children at her home and so do other child care specialists across the county.

"We've seen that kind of shift over the last few months," said Carla Lunn, a specialist with Howard County Child Care Resource Center who helps parents find caregivers. "Parents are able to find care."

In August 2001, the center's phones rang constantly, said Lisa Rahwanji, another specialist.

But a year later, during what normally is the office's busiest month, Rahwanji said inquiries slowed noticeably, and child care centers called to say they had slots to fill.

Between July last year and July this year, the resource center reported receiving 3,162 calls, down by about 500 from the year before.

The number of parents inquiring about infant care, which is more difficult to find, also decreased by about 200 calls.

Directors and employees contacted at day care centers in Clarksville, Columbia, Ellicott City, Elkridge and Woodstock said they all had openings for preschool children - one new provider had 19 slots to fill - although some said they did not take infants or had waiting lists for next year.

Debbie Yare, the resource center's program manager, said care for infants (under 2) is more difficult to find because the state requires a child-to-staff ratio of no greater than 3 to 1 for licensed child care centers.

Family day care providers such as Hargest must maintain a child-to-adult ratio of no greater than 2 to 1 for children younger than 2 years old.

But even parents with infants have had an easier time lately. Leslie Moore of Columbia said she worried when she got word in July that the care provider who watched her 3-year-old son Emmanuel would no longer be able to do so.

But Moore said her search did not require too much effort: She found space for Emmanuel weeks later at KinderCare Learning Center on Little Patuxent Parkway and placed her infant, Isaiah, at a home not far from work.

Child care experts say the change can be attributed, in part, to the construction of new centers and the renovation of existing ones.

Yare counted four new child care centers that opened last year, including one in Fulton, two in Clarksville and another in Ellicott City. Together, they add about 100 spaces for children older than 2.

Increased spaces

"I think there are more [spaces] because the centers have increased gradually throughout the years," said Arna Griffith, director of Locate Child Care, a service that helps parents in Maryland get referrals and information about state regulations.

Griffith said some older centers also are expanding to cater to infants, a move that requires hiring additional staff members and adding portable cribs and diaper areas, among other things.

Apart from the new facilities, some care experts say the economic downturn has left a growing number of parents out of work and at home with their children.

Marlene Miller, president of Howard County Family Child Care Association and a caregiver for five or six youngsters, said half of the children she watches in her Kings Contrivance home have parents who changed or lost jobs within the past nine months.

The same is true for Elizabeth Devereux of Ellicott City, who said one of her clients recently lost her job and decide to pull her child out of day care.

For some providers, the open spaces pose financial problems.

"I need the income," said Hargest. "My [other] option is work full time and take my kids to day care. There are days when I wish I was back in the work force."

Miller said family care providers "are having to become a little more flexible in their billing. Either we've delayed the fees or made other arrangements [for parents in a financial squeeze]."

If parents cannot stay home themselves, another option is to leave a child with a family member.

Kate Yemelyanov of Columbia, who has two children younger than 6 and is expecting a third, said she remembers having difficulty finding day care when her children were younger.

In-law help

But this time, she will not have the same problem because she plans to leave her newborn with her mother-in-law, who recently moved into her home.

And she should not have to worry about finding care for her other two children at any time in the future. Tim, 2, and Joey, 5, spend time during the day at Bright Beginnings Children's Center in Columbia.

"Once you get a kid into a particular school, it's pretty easy to keep them there," Yemelyanov said. "The older they get, the easier it gets."

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