The extra bedroom in Alexia Ault’s home near Cumberland holds a child’s bed along one wall, a crib along another and a playset in the corner. Recently, though, this room where an infant foster child used to sleep has sat empty.
Ault said limited access to child care in Harlan County is at least part of the reason she hasn’t taken in new foster children. For infants in particular, child care is often hard to find throughout much of Eastern Kentucky.
From her home near Cumberland, Ault drove two hours each day as she shuttled her infant foster child to and from a daycare in Harlan, at a cost of about $250 a month in gas.
“That’s two hours I can’t be doing my work or spending time with my foster children,” Ault said.
Some Eastern Kentucky counties, including Magoffin and Owsley counties, have just one child care center, according to data from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Martin County has none.
“The numbers are just startlingly small,” said June Widman, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition.
According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning public policy and advocacy organization, 50 percent of Kentuckians live in a “child care desert.” The Center defines this as a census tract where there are either no child care providers, or where there are more than three times as many children as available child care slots.
Child care experts and advocates said that figure is even higher in the eastern corner of the state, where limited access to quality child care is one of several factors impeding economic development in a region struggling to rebound after the coal industry’s rapid decline in recent years.
Officials hope a handful of big-ticket projects, including a proposed aluminum mill near Ashland and a solar farm in Pike County, will help the region’s economy bounce back. But as those efforts continue, experts contend that many counties don’t have enough quality child care options to support a healthy workforce.
“We need to have the infrastructure to support workers, and a big part of that infrastructure is having day care, having some sort of child care option,” Ault said.
That lack of access became especially apparent earlier this year in Perry County, where the closure of a child care center near Hazard left dozens of families scrambling to find a new provider for their children.
In February, the Hazard Lions Club Montessori Schools sent a letter to parents saying the center would close in just three days. Some of those parents came to New Beginnings Child Care & Preschool in Hazard.
Ashley Hudson, director of New Beginnings, said they were desperate.
“They have nowhere to go,” Hudson said. “We had a parent say, ‘I have to take off work until I can find somewhere because I have nobody to take my kids.’ And of course I feel bad for her and I want to help her, but at this moment, we are full. I mean, we have no space.”
The lack of providers in Eastern Kentucky is largely attributable to the state’s inadequate funding system for low-income families, according to advocates.
It can be hard for quality child care centers to meet their expenses if too many parents qualify for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, said Mary Ann Mullins, managing director of New Beginnings.
The CCAP program helps pay child care expenses for some low-income families, but reimbursement rates don’t fully cover the cost of care, Mullins said. That is a huge issue for New Beginnings, where about half of clients qualify for CCAP, she said.
The daycare charges $25 a day for infants for non-CCAP families, but is reimbursed just $19 for CCAP families.
Mullins said New Beginnings basically breaks even each year, but she’s hesitant to increase rates because many residents — even those who don’t qualify for CCAP — can’t afford to pay more.
“It’s hard in this community to sustain, or to afford, what child care really costs,” Mullins said. “This community won’t bear that.”
Mullins and others have pushed the state to increase the reimbursement rate for CCAP families, and to relax the income guidelines so that more parents are eligible for assistance. According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, families applying for CCAP must be at or below 160 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible, and at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level to re-certify with the program.
“The business model simply doesn’t work,” said Bridget Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a non-profit citizens’ activist group that has studied child care quality and access in Kentucky. “The current reimbursement rate does not cover what a child care center needs to maintain a high quality environment for children.”
“The state is currently under-investing, and it makes it really difficult for what is essentially a small business to open, stay open, and sustain the model with high quality,” Ramsey said.
Every two years, Kentucky’s Division of Child Care contracts with the University of Kentucky to research and reevaluate child care rates and CCAP reimbursement rates in every county. As the cost of living and child care in local communities change over time, the division alters reimbursement rates to reflect those changes.
Last year, the majority of an additional $42 million allotted to Kentucky from the federal Child Development Block Grant went straight to the state CCAP program, said Sarah Taylor Vanover, director of the state’s Division of Child Care, in an email to the Herald-Leader.
“By giving those additional funds to the CCAP program, families have access to centers that participate in CCAP, and centers are receiving a higher rate of funding so they may increase pay for child care providers and meet other business needs,” Vanover said.
The division also gives additional funding to child care centers that receive three or more stars through its Kentucky ALL-STARS program (five stars being the highest quality of care).
Still, Vanover said, the number of available slots for children doesn’t meet the demand in parts of Kentucky.
“There is still a need for additional child care providers to provide quality care to young children and enhance workforce development,” Vanover said.
The Prichard Committee and the Division of Child Care are one year into a three-year grant from the Kellogg Foundation to study child care deserts in Kentucky, and the viability of increasing at-home child care — a system where an individual provides child care from their home.
New Beginnings will likely be one of a handful of pilot programs in the grant, Mullins said. It will act as a “hub” for in-home child care providers who require additional support, such as bookkeeping.
For communities where a traditional daycare is difficult to maintain, boosting in-home child care could help families who either can’t afford a daycare or can’t travel to one, Ramsey said.
The pilot programs will aim to boost the number of providers, while offering support to help maintain a high level of care.
“As we increase access, we want to do that in a way that supports quality,” Ramsey said.
Widman of the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition said she is glad the state is focusing on in-home child care, which, she said, has seen a substantial drop in participation in recent years.
Since about 2005, the number of licensed in-home providers across the state dropped from about 1,200 to less than 250, Widman said.
Increased regulations and higher insurance costs both contributed to that decline, as did a 2013 temporary moratorium on new enrollments in the CCAP program, she said.
“I would welcome the attention in a really thoughtful way that it’s not just about regulating, but it’s about, ‘How can we recognize this particular job and the importance of keeping in our communities a place where family child care is honored and revered?’” Widman said.
In Eastern Kentucky, Harlan County once had about 20 certified in-home providers, but now there’s just one. In Perry County and six of the counties that surround it, there are now just two certified in-home providers.
With the Kellogg Foundation grant, Widman said she hopes to eventually create 25 in-home providers in Eastern Kentucky, starting with five in Perry and its surrounding counties.
Mullins, at New Beginnings, said she believes the state’s willingness to boost in-home child care will ease the pressure on rural daycares that struggle to meet demand.
“Every child deserves quality child care, and our area can’t bear that cost and I think the state should step in and look at how important child care is in a family’s life and livelihood, and of our state succeeding,” Mullins said. “There has to be child care in place if people are going to work.”