Sorry, we’re full.
That phrase, like a skipping record, undulates through local communities in the Lamoille Valley as parent after parent reaches for the phone to find child care for their children. The answer is often the same: We can put you on our waiting list.
Finding affordable, quality child care — especially for infants and toddlers — is nearly impossible for many families.
“You almost have to start searching for child care before the child is born, and maybe even before you get pregnant,” said Melissa Pena of Capstone Head Start and Early Head Start, a program that provides free learning and development services to children up to age five for low-income families.
Child-care programs help prepare kids for kindergarten, provide critical learning and development, primarily through play. About 90 percent of the brain develops by age five, and studies show that high-quality child care can narrow the achievement gap, increase earnings later in life, and reduce entanglements with the criminal justice system.
But what if child-care services just aren’t available?
Over 36,000 children up to age five currently live in Vermont but nearly half of them do not have access to any regulated child-care programs.
In Lamoille County alone, there are 5,332 children under the age of 18, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The county lists 61 registered or licensed child-care centers with a capacity to take 1,232 children, but only 16 currently have vacancies, and they can’t take every child. Child-care centers are regulated on the number of children in each age group that they can accept: infant, toddler, preschool and school-age.
Infants and toddlers are the hardest to find care for in this area, said Pena.
It doesn’t help that a longtime child-care center in Cambridge, Wee Care Day Care, is closing after 30 years at the end of June and will leave 38 children without child care.
With renovations getting underway at Hyde Park Elementary School this summer, school officials decided not to offer a school-based preschool program next year, which could leave up to another 15 students without child care for the next school year.
In an attempt to fill the void, a Belvidere parent is opening Little Moose Crossing, a registered home day care, in June, but it may not be enough.
“There’s one home daycare in Johnson that has four families on the waiting list,” said Laurie Rapp of Head Start. “Puffer (Child Care) had 48 kids on the waitlist. … The needs of our community are not being met.”
The lack of quality, affordable child care in Lamoille County takes qualified people out of the workforce, because for some, it is cheaper not to work.
“It creates a dent in the local economy,” said Pena. “And along with that, for the mom who is out of work for a long period taking care of the kids, how do they get back into the workforce?”
The lack of child care is a huge barrier for working families, said Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge.
In the last published count by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, on a rolling average from 2010 to 2014, 67 percent of children under six years old in Lamoille County had both parents in the workforce, and 75 percent of children ages six to 17.
There is no perfect formula to give someone advice on finding child care, said Ashley Brown of Head Start.
“We help them look for every rock unturned, and at how to re-adjust their budgets for mom or dad to stay home,” she said.
It’s one thing to help a family with one child and another thing to help a family with multiple kids, all in different age brackets.
When parents look for child care, they’re told to consider staff turnover, the environment, and whether it’s registered or licensed with the state, but sometimes there is no choice.
“Each family has different needs, and there’s not much we can do without openings,” Rapp said.