Any parent who has looked for good, affordable child care can tell you it's a struggle. Experts say we are actually facing a child care crisis, and parents are being forced to do some creative things to make it all work.
The first few years are some of our children's most formative and what any parent wants for his child at that time is simple.
"Everybody wants the best for their kids," said Justin Carl, a single day with two little boys who he is co-parenting with his ex-wife. "That's the main goal."
But experts say finding quality child care is not always easy. Parents sign their infants up for daycare before they've even been conceived, competing on lengthy waiting lists.
"I think it's a pretty dire situation right now," said Dr. Leslie Cintron, a sociology professor at The University of Virginia.
Cintron says affordable child care has been tough to find in recent years, but even more difficult now because of the economic downturn.
"A lot of the child care centers are starting to fold," said Cintron. "Which makes then even more pressure for parents that are looking for care for their children."
The remaining facilities can be pricey. The average cost of day care for a 4-year-old in Virginia right now is about $8,300 a year. Infant care comes to a whopping $11,600 a year.
"Which exceeds the cost by 10% of tuition and fees at a state college!" said Cintron, putting things in perspective.
With two kids, the experts say there's a good chance you're paying 60% more than the median rent.
Shonna Johnson is a mother to four: "I had nothing left! At the end of the week when I paid my daycare bill, there was nothing left. So, there was no way for me to make money other than to stay at home and watch kids."
Experts say many parents go on welfare or sacrifice nutrition and shelter just to get by. For single parents, there's not much choice.
"It's family, friends, babysitters, cobbling together whatever you can," said Cintron.
But if daycare options were cheaper, experts say that would be concerning too.
"You want your care to be costly," said Cintron. "Because you want to know that you're paying professionals who are experienced and skilled and educated to be looking after your children."
In reality, experts say the average child care provider gets paid less than a parking lot attendant.
"The average wage of a child care worker is about $9.60 an hour," said Cintron.
That's less than $20,000 a year.
Shonna Johnson has seen both sides. She's also worked for a commercial provider.
"There were days where you were just ready to give in!" said Johnson.
Shonna recalled days with 10 2-year-olds to just one adult.
"How do you give attention as one person to 10 2-year-olds?" said Johnson. "How do you take them to the bathroom every 15 minutes? And do a lesson plan. And follow it. How do you make that happen as one person?"
For parents in a pinch, trying to find child care and leave room to put food on the table, it's the new reality: a child care crisis where sacrifices must be made.
There are no federal standards for commercial daycare, that's left up to the states. Many home providers can skate by without any supervision at all. In Virginia, usually they do not have to meet regulations if they care for fewer than 6 additional children.
Justin Carl is a firefighter in Chesterfield County and a member of the Navy Reserve. He says he and his ex-wife juggle 24-hour shift work schedules, counting on child care or family to fill in the gaps.
"It was just figuring out, ok, I'm gonna work this day so you're going to have to work this day and then I'm off this day, so I can be home," said Carl. "And you know I can pick the kids up so you can work this day."
They pay more than a thousand dollars a month to make it all work, and to send their kids to a daycare with a focus on providing enriching experiences to the children. It's pricier, but Carl says they decided it was worth it if the boys were getting the best.
When Justin goes out of town with the military, potentially for weeks or months at a time, he counts on grandparents for help.
"It's just the sacrifice you make for your kids so they can have the best life possible," said Carl.
It's a situation that's not that unusual. Parents often work opposite shifts or turn to family to save money on care.
"You see if you go on any of these blogs, where moms and dads are talking to each other about what they're doing with their children, there's a lot of anxiety and stress that's associated with locating a high quality care- locating care of any kind, frankly," said Cintron.
Johnson says she's tried it all, starting with in-home care but that was short lived.
"By the time I got a paycheck and paid her, I literally had a penny," said Johnson.
Shonna got help from food banks and through welfare got her kids in to daycare. But, that was a short term fix. Just as she worked her way off the system and she was faced with paying 100% on her own again, the cost went up to $1400 a month.
"I did at home child care for probably about a year, and that was simply because there was no job out there that was going to pay me enough to pay for daycare," said Johnson.
Desperate, Shonna turned to a bartering system. She traded free rent in her home for free child care to her children.
"And it was the only way we could do it at that point in time," said Johnson.
But that meant she had to trust a virtual stranger in her home and in tight quarters. Now, she lives in a home with multiple families. The parents coordinate their schedules to make sure an adult is always with the kids
"It's worked for two years. It's the only way we've survived," said Johnson.
They live day by day, foregoing things like birthday parties and new clothes to make ends meet. She even dropped out of college classes to work and pay for child care.
"There are some major sacrifices that I probably don't even think about, because as a mother you just do it. :whatever sacrifice you have to make, you make it."
Here are some resources from Dr. Cintron for parents trying to make it all work:
The site that can most help parents locate quality care is here: http://childcareaware.org/
Parents Magazine online also has a childcare resource page for parents, including tips such as questions to ask when choosing care: http://www.parents.com/baby/childcare/
*I'd direct your attention to a report posted just the other day that talks about a family with a child who died in home care speaking with VA state senator. It's a heartbreaking story but one that folks who are concerned about the quality of background checks need to be aware of, and can also help take action on, in the Commonwealth:
The National Institutes of Health report "National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development"
The NICHD also has a site focused on parents: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/audiences/parents/Pages/home.aspx
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