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Child-care subsidies rescue waiting moms

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


In order to get to her job by 9 a.m., Jewel Youngs had to drop her three children -- 6-year-old twin girls and a 9-year-old son -- at school 45 minutes early.

"I hated leaving them sitting there unattended for 45 minutes, and I had been warned I wasn't supposed to," Youngs said. But she couldn't be continually late for work and couldn't afford the $165 a week it would cost to have her three children in a before- and after-school care program. She was barely managing to pay $86 a week to have her kids in a YMCA after-school program.

But after being on a waiting list for subsidized child care since April 1999, Youngs finally got the call she had been longing for in November. More funding had come through, and she could take advantage of a state program that helps pay for child care. She now pays $12 a week for her three children to be in supervised care before and after school.

"It has given me so much peace of mind," said Youngs, a legal secretary. "I am very

thankful for a program like Coordinated Child Care. If it hadn't been for them giving me my grant, I don't know what I would be doing now."

Youngs' children are just three of 1,400 children who have been placed in subsidized child- care programs since November when Pinellas County erased a waiting list that had been building for more than a year. Funding shifts in the state budget made $500,000 available to place the children in quality, licensed child- care centers, homes and before- and after-school programs. Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas County is the agency that matches parents who need help in covering child- care costs with centers and homes that care for both subsidized and non-subsidized children.

"It means a lot for the families in Pinellas County to say that in one fell swoop you have removed every child on the waiting list. That is a very incredible and very powerful thing that has a tremendous rippling effect," said Gina Kinchlow, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Children's Forum, a non-profit group that lobbies and educates the state and Legislature on quality child care.

"It is a wonderful thing for parents to be able to go to work with the peace of mind that their children are in a quality child-care situation."

While these children have been on the long waiting list, many parents have been piecing child care together between relatives, neighbors, babysitters and older siblings. Many have spent lunch hours rushing their children from one house to another.

"You wouldn't believe how many babysitters we've been through," Youngs said. "Now my children are in a structured program, somebody is making sure they get their homework done, they give them snacks, they play games. I don't have to worry about a babysitter driving them around and what if her car breaks down or something."

"It makes such a difference for the children when they are in stable, quality care," Kinchlow agreed. "And for the employers of those parents who now have quality child care, they will also see a difference in the productivity of those parents as employees."

Erasing the long waiting list means other parents have been able to finally start work or go to school. In the case of Katherine Emerson, she is now able to go to law school.

This single mom with two girls is in her first year of law school at Stetson University College of Law. She moved here from Utah last May and has been working and finishing her undergraduate degree. She lives on $250 a week and pays $84 a week for her 6-year-old and 8-year-old to be in an after-school program. But the American Bar Association prefers first-year law students not to work so Emerson knew when she started at Stetson she would have even less money to live on but still need child care.

"To be honest I just don't know what I would have done," said Emerson, who has been on the waiting list for subsidized child care since August. "I got the (child-care) scholarship in October, and I started school in January." She now pays $3 a week for both girls' child- care programs.

Emerson is especially thankful that Florida subsidizes child care for parents who are in school. In Utah, that was not the case so at one point she was working at a day-care center to get subsidized child care and taking classes on her lunch hours.

Since the additional funding was used to place 1,400 children at once, Pinellas County had to start a new waiting list on March 1 for new subsidized child- care applicants. But because the huge backlog has been placed, the wait now should be much shorter. And of the 1,400 children who Coordinated Child Care has found slots for, only 1,100 have taken those slots to date. If 300 children don't enroll soon, those slots will all be available.

"We're waiting to see exactly how much is used and we may open enrollment again," said Pat Wire, program administrator for Coordinated Child Care. "We're hopeful, but we can't promise anything. Any family that thinks they may meet the (financial need) criteria should go ahead and get on the waiting list." Call 547-5700 or 547-5782.

There is a special category of children who are put at the head of the list so they have virtually no wait. Children deemed to be "at risk" because they are being abused or neglected have the highest priority in getting into child-care centers and homes because those settings help build socialization and can be very therapeutic for them, Wire said.

Anyone with child- care needs, regardless of income, is encouraged to call Coordinated Child Care's resource and referral department. It offers parents a list of child-care centers, homes or after-school programs tailored to their location, hours or other specific requirements. It also coaches parents on how to choose the best care for their kids. Call (727) 547-5750 for more information.

The Florida Children's Forum just released new statistics on the cost of child care statewide. In Pinellas County the cost of keeping a child in a day-care center ranges from $82 to $150 a week depending upon the age of the child. (Infants cost the most.) The cost at licensed family child- care homes ranges from $100 to $120 a week. The data reflects 75 percent of child-care homes and centers in the county. It does not include numbers on the most expensive 25 percent.

-- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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