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Wait list for child care is growing

But state officials say help for some mothers may be on the way: $10-million in aid for day care.

By RYAN DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Hailey Bove doesn't do naps. The 3-year-old with brown hair, a contagious smile and a steady energy supply runs from one room to the next, playing a Sesame Street computer game, then adding more Pokemon toys to her bathtub collection.

Leigh-Ann Bove keeps a watchful eye.

That's her full-time job.

It's really the only full-time job she can afford to have.

"I would like to have a full-time job, doing the 9-to-5 thing, with benefits, the whole nine yards," the 23-year-old single mother said, "but there's no way I can afford to put her in day care."

Hailey is one of 935 Pasco children on a waiting list to receive state-subsidized day care, according to the state's Sept. 30 figures, its most recent.

The state has been providing subsidized day care for low-income families for more than 10 years, and it's the longest waiting list anyone at the Department of Children and Families can recall, and it's stacked with employed but struggling parents, commonly known as the "working poor."

But help for some mothers, like Leigh-Ann Bove, who said she has been on the waiting list since March 1999, may finally be on the way, state officials said.

The state is poised to release $10-million that has been budgeted to support day care, said operations management consultant Winston Croft of the DCF. Because of deficits in other parts of the child care program, it remains to be seen how much will go to help the working poor.

While she waits, Bove waits tables attheLonghorn Steakhouse in Port Richey. She makes $240 a week, working 25 to 30 hours, nights, when she can leave Hailey at home with her boyfriend or her grandmother. She shares her New Port Richey house with her brother, grandmother and daughter. Her brother and grandmother work during the day.

Since July 1999 the waiting list has been frozen. Not a single working poor family on the list has started receiving asubsidy, Croft said. The state and Youth and FamilyAlternatives Inc., the agency contracted to oversee the program in Pasco, have been flooded with children referred by the Sheriff's Office and the state who are at risk of abuse. Those children get first priority.

And the money.

"It's a guessing game," Croft said. "You can't make a mistake. You can't go over. You have to spend less money than you get."

"There never has been enough money," he added. "It doesn't matter how much you get, there's always more kids than you have money for."

A three-tier funding priority schedule is determined by the DCF.

The highest priority children are those who are determined by the state or Sheriff's Office to be at risk of abuse,neglect or exploitation and are DCF clients.

The second level consists of state-referred children at risk of welfare dependency, including children of WAGES welfare-to-work participants, migrant farm workers and teen parents. This level also includes children from families with an income below the federal poverty line. A family of four earning $17,050 is considered at the federal poverty level.

The lowest priority children are from families earning between the poverty line and 150 percent of the poverty level. If already in the program, they can remain until their family's income reaches 185 percent of the poverty level. These are the working poor. And they are the ones suffering because of a funding shortage.

An increasingly cautious child protection system has caused the number of children receiving subsidized day care -- because they are deemed at risk of abuse -- tojump to 525 in June 2000 from 313 in July 1999, according to DCF figures. Upon referral, those children don't have to wait. They have eroded the funds available to the working poor.

Bove said she knew someone who was suspected of possibly abusing her children. Her kids jumped right into the child care program, Bove said.

"I call (YFA officials) once, twice, maybe three times a month to see if they've heard anything," Bove said. "I keep calling back and still nothing."

Some on the list probably aren't eligible anymore, Croft said, so when funds become available the list could shrink dramatically.

When Pamela Schwander, 32, of Port Richey signed onto the list in July 1999, she was making $60 a week doing home health care. Now she makes $12 an hour as an office supervisor at Florida Dental Center in Port Richey.

"I'm doing fine," she said. "I don't need the system. I came out of the hole, and I'm okay right now."

The size of the subsidy depends on the age of the children, who fall into one of six age groups.

Payments range from $125 a week for infant care to $56 a week for school-age children during the academic year, Croft said. The children can go to any licensed center, or relatives can receive a portion of subsidy to watch the child. The state will pay 20 percent more than its standard rate to send the children to "Gold Seal" centers, which have been specially certified by one of several agencies.

The subsidies are largely intended, Croft said, so mothers can return to work.

"Any mother would want to be home with their kids," Schwander said. "But when you're home and you're miserable and your daughter wants a pair of shoes for a dance and you can't get them, it's hard."

- Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452 or by e-mail at rdavis@sptimes.com.

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