CitzeNetReporter Sunday Morning News & Comment By Teresa Kramarz, Filed 3/10/02:Sandra Young was 19 when she had her daughter, now 2 years old. She earned $1,000 a month working as a receptionist at St. Agnes Children’s Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, but after paying for childcare she had $350 left to live.
The County of Westchester is one of a few in the State of New York that offer childcare subsides to low-income parents like Young. But getting the government’s help is no easy task.
It’s hard to get.
Parents and childcare providers described the process of qualifying and applying to the subsidies as being long and complicated, and many complained that the Department of Social Services, which administers the program, offers little help to get through it.
Income Qualifier: One Level Fits All Areas?!?!
To qualify for a subsidy, a parent’s income must fall within a certain range of the federal poverty level. For example, following the New York State Eligibility Chart, a family of four earning up to $39,700 a year may be eligible to receive funds under a program called Title XX.
But a federal guideline does not differentiate between varying costs of living across the country.
“It does not make any sense. It’s not the same living in Idaho as outside Manhattan, or in Manhattan for that matter,” said Marcia Corning-Landsman, executive director of the White Plains Daycare Association, a non-profit organization that operates seven local daycare centers serving 400 children.
A vicious cycle?
Many parents also get caught in a vicious cycle. To qualify for a subsidy the parents must be employed, but they cannot secure employment if they do not have someone to care for their children. Meanwhile, childcare centers are not supposed to accept a child until the parents’ subsidy application is approved, said Corning-Landsman.
The application process can be very tough for the parents, and so is getting answers from social services, said Corning-Landsman.
“We have a couple of our staff that, in addition to their regular responsibilities, dedicate much of their time to help parents get through the application,” she added.
Paperwork and more paperwork.
Zotica Medina-Weiner, director of the Early Head Start Program, is one of those staff members. She calculated that she spends 60 percent of her time helping parents with their applications and following up with caseworkers at the Department of Social Services. She has even made her own forms, explaining how to complete the application.
She said parents have often come to her in tears because they were poorly treated and could not get anyone in social services to explain to them what they needed to do.
The Paper Chase.
The applicant must collect documents from different sources including verification of income from their employer, a statement from their landlord, a form from their child’s daycare and, in the case of a single parent, a notarized letter showing the absentee’s parent contribution, said Medina-Weiner.
But because many documents are time sensitive, a delay in securing one can cause others to expire, said Mary Ann Tedesco, executive director of the YMCA childcare program. It is also difficult for parents because many work off the books and cannot get a letter from their employers verifying their employment and income level, she added.
Social Services Sluggish.
Although “social services says it is supposed to take 30 days to process an application, it usually takes anywhere from 30 to 90 days. It typically takes 45 days for parents to hear on the status of their application,” said Medina-Weiner.
Sandra Young waited three months to receive approval. She was lucky, however, because in the meantime she was able to borrow money to cover her childcare costs and go to work.
Others simply lose their jobs because they cannot pay their childcare providers while they wait for a subsidy approval, said Medina-Weiner.
Demand for Child Care Up.
Demand for childcare subsidies has increased dramatically since they were first offered in 1994. Leslie Perdy, of the Childcare Council of Westchester, remembers when they started managing the program in 1994 with a caseload of 400 children per month.
The Department of Social Services, which administers the program now, reported that in 2001 an average of 5,500 children per month received subsidies, said Deputy Commissioner Dennis Packard.
Packard said the application is fairly straightforward and they provide documentation to explain how to fill it. He said they take 30 days to process it, but incomplete documentation from the parent causes delays.
The child can attend daycare once the application is approved. The law specifies “you are eligible for daycare from the day we make an eligibility determination,” said Packard. If parents take their child to daycare before then, they do it as a “business risk.”
Tapping unlicensed providers.
Corning-Landsman said that many families find the process too difficult and simply give up trying to get government assistance. They end up choosing a type of daycare they can afford, which means an unlicensed provider that works in potentially unsafe or unsanitary conditions, she said.
But in Sandra Young’s experience, a State licensed provider was no guarantee of adequate childcare. Many times she found her sitter napping and her baby playing alone on the floor. The carpets were dirty and smelled, and the sitter, who did not own a highchair, fed the baby in a car seat on the floor, she said.
“Quality childcare programs are vital to our economy and to the development of children. We know every dollar spent in early childcare saves $5 to $7 in later remediation,” said Corning-Landsman citing a study from the Children’s Defense Fund. “The children are the ones that really lose out.”