Child Care in Limbo

Even with reports of child neglect skyrocketing, state lawmakers provide no new funding to help parents afford day care programs

In the past six months, Anthony Flowers has turned down four job offers.

He wanted to take them, but Flowers said he can't find a safe place to leave his six children when the opportunity to work arises, even if only for a day or two. A single father, Flowers said his hands have been tied since he lost his job two years ago when his employer went out of business.

"It's hard," Flowers, 31, said in an interview at his southside home as his children played in a room nearby. "I'm trying to have money so I can do stuff with them, but it just can't happen."

Flowers is one of many Arizona parents trying to find affordable child care in a struggle that is part of the state's larger crisis surrounding Child Protective Services.

Many working in the child-care field recall that the struggles to keep children in state-subsidized day care date back to 2009. But the biggest hit came in March 2011, when GOP legislators cut nearly $80 million in subsidies that accompanied parents' co-payments for day care. Since the cuts, the state Department of Economic Security has left parents on indefinite waiting lists for subsidies when or if the money returns, or turned them away altogether.

This year, state lawmakers provided zero dollars for child-care subsidies, according to the Children's Action Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to children's welfare.

Eric Schindler, president and CEO of Child & Family Resources, denounced the cuts, adding that they've only caused more problems in the long run.

"Child-care subsidies is an incredibly important child abuse prevention strategy as well as an economic self-sufficiency strategy," Schindler said. "So the fact that we have eliminated them is short-sighted, leads to increased child neglect and also helps put barriers in the way of the working poor who are struggling to achieve economic self-sufficiency and keep jobs."

Tucson Nursery School, which opened in 1946, remains the longest-running local child-care center for low-income and at-risk families. Director Sherry Rollefstad remembers how she felt when the cuts were implemented.

"We were devastated on all levels in different ways," she said. "I was, as a director, because it's my job to keep the doors open to provide care for kids so families can have some place to leave their children."

Rollefstad added that although she didn't think that DES or legislators remained unsympathetic to the issue, she said that having to break the news to families in person was far different from making the decision in Phoenix.

"It's a different caring up there than when you're sitting here looking at their faces," Rollefstad said. "You're seeing children that are borderline—CPS may be involved but they haven't moved them—and you're worried about these kids getting fed."

Despite the cuts, Rollefstad said she didn't lose any families as a result, and she asked many of them to pay as much as they could per week while still keeping their kids enrolled. Organizations like First Things First, which gets funding from tobacco tax revenue, helps Tucson Nursery School by providing about $62,000 annually in grants and scholarships.

Still, Rollefstad has had to lay off some workers and cut the number of hours for others.

"I want to have people keep their jobs," Rollefstad said. "I thought I was going to have to, at the worst, close the doors or lay off people and cut hours, which we did have to do."  

Rollefstad said that parents who don't have access to child care sometimes put their children in unsafe situations. She points to examples such as Shanesha Taylor, the Phoenix woman who last month left her 2-year-old son and 6-month-old son in her car for more than half an hour while she interviewed for a job.

"I hear a lot that parents don't know what to do," she said.

Some lawmakers are aware of the effects the cuts have had, including some within the party that made them in 2011. Rep. Ethan Orr, a Republican from Oro Valley, said that, as a supporter of child-care subsidies, he's been doing what he can to help educate the rest of the Legislature on their importance.

"I can tell you firsthand that if you want someone to find a job and they're a single woman or they're a low-income family or a single man and they have a child, they need help with child care," Orr said, adding that he planned to try getting some of the funding reinstated during a special session that's likely later this spring. "These child-care subsidies simply put people to work."

In the meantime, parents like Anthony Flowers will likely remain in limbo, either on DES' waiting list or ineligible for coverage. For Flowers, being able to leave his kids somewhere safe is critical, and he said he looks forward to the day when he has a job that will help cover the weekly $275 cost to have his children enrolled at Tucson Nursery School.

"That's all I need is them in day care," he said. "Because I need to do something instead of just sitting here. ... I've got to work."

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