A shortage of available infant care and regulatory barriers for providers dominated opinions shared with legislators at an affordable child care listening session Tuesday.
The session, hosted by Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, doubled as the first meeting of the Minnesota House of Representatives' Select Committee on Affordable Child Care. About 50 people attended to listen and share experiences in the Central Lakes College cafeteria.
The committee was formed in January to examine affordability of and access to child care in the state and is headed by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria.
Franson said while Minnesota ranks highly for quality of child care, the state has some of the highest costs in the nation. A 2014 report from Child Care Aware found Minnesota was the least affordable of all states for infant care, with the average cost at more than 15 percent of median income for married couples with children.
Meanwhile, access to care is an issue of particular concern in rural Minnesota. According to statistics compiled from Minnesota Department of Human Services records, Crow Wing County has lost 31 percent of its home day care and child care centers since 2005. Aitkin County also saw a loss from 34 day cares in 2005 to 28 in 2014.
Diane Anderson, the child care licensor in Crow Wing County, said she is closing out a license once a month, mostly due to retirements or personal medical issues.
"I have been out there trying to get people, to recruit," Anderson said. "I haven't come across anybody."
Anderson said she used to have 12 to 15 people show up for monthly orientations on how to start a home day care, but now she struggles to get one person to show up.
A dearth of providers is leading to a shortage of child care for Brainerd lakes area parents, those involved in day care said.
Amber Hennessey of Baxter, the president of the Crow Wing County Licensed Family Child Care Association, said she receives two or three calls a week from parents seeking infant care.
"We're having issues where people can't go to jobs because there are no infant spots," Hennessey said.
Member of the committee Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, asked Hennessey why more people were not going into day care with the present demand.
"What are we missing?" Kresha said.
Hennessey said people are intimidated by the rules and regulations that go along with home day care, particularly the more stringent regulations that accompany care of infants.
Kaylo Brooks, a family preservation social worker with Crow Wing County Community Services, echoed Hennessey's concern about availability of care.
Brooks relayed an experience she had earlier in the day searching for an infant opening for a teen mother she works with. She made 23 phone calls with no luck finding an opening, Brooks said, and because of this, the teen cannot go back to school or back to work.
"We want young people, all people of course, to be self-sufficient," Brooks said. "This young mom of mine right now is getting cash assistance from Crow Wing County because she can't go back to work and she can't go back to school until she has child care."
Patty Orth, who runs Patty's Child Care/Preschool in Morrison County, said the liabilities associated with caring for infants scare potential providers away. This coupled with mountains of paperwork and long hours for little pay make the job less attractive, she said. Orth estimated she spends 60 hours a week directly caring for children, and this figure does not account for the cleaning, food preparation and other tasks necessary to run a home day care.
While she understands the need to make care affordable for parents, Orth said providing care for families receiving Child Care Assistance Program funding becomes burdensome for providers.
"I'm not against it at all, but it can be 1.5 to 2 months before getting paid," Orth said. "It's a ton of extra paperwork for us."
Several of those who spoke also mentioned burdens associated with required training-both the added cost and the required travel, since many of the trainings are hosted in the metro area.
Steve Barrows, a Baxter city council member who used to work for DHS, suggested the agency consider ways to provide trainings online for providers.
Barrows added affordability for families needs to be considered along with the costs faced by providers.
"We're in a heavy area where the workforce is primarily service-oriented," Barrows said. "To afford the fees out there-they can't do it. We can talk minimum wage until the cows come home, which doesn't mean garbage until you're getting 80 hours every two weeks."
Jeff Odendahl of Little Falls stated his support for increasing the state's appropriation to fund a sliding scale for parents unable to afford the high costs of child care. At the same time, Odendahl said the amount given to providers should be increased as well to encourage participation in the program.
"The basic sliding fee scale itself is set a little lower than it should be," Odendahl said.
One concern related a lack of regulation shared was borne from the tragic loss of a child. Sarah Coe, shared the story of her nephew, Lucas Coe. Lucas died before age 2 in February 2015 after choking at a home day care in rural Brainerd. Coe said Lucas died due to negligence of the provider, and a law passed in 2013 that made insurance for day cares optional in the state led to hardship for her sister, Lucas' mother.
"We mandate insurance on cars, but we do not on our providers," Coe said. She added although the law requires day care providers to disclose the lack of insurance, the explanation her sister received was not thorough enough.
"We were told if the child fell off a swing that our medical insurance would cover it, not that if she hurt or killed the child that it wouldn't," Coe said.
Jerry Kerber, the inspector general of DHS, said the law was a compromise between the agency and providers, who asked for the flexibility not to carry insurance.
"The main thing is, they have to inform parents," Kerber said. "Parents should be able to choose for themselves if they want to have a provider that has insurance," noting it could raise costs.
Kerber acknowledged Coe's story was a tragic one and in some cases the law might not appear to be the right thing.
"Those things are all fine, until it's not fine," Kerber said.
Committee members agreed the problems faced by the child care system were multi-faceted and would require a delicate balance of numerous approaches.
Kresha said there are societal problems involved in the mix that government will never be able to fix.
"The situations of poverty, and out of wedlock, and family support. ... Frankly, we don't have the budget. We're never going to have enough money or mandates to fix some of these things," Kresha said. "We can't mandate people to go into child care, and we certainly can't mandate people in their bedrooms."
There was no discussion from those in attendance of the union election currently underway among child care providers. The unionization of child care providers has been a controversial issue for years in the state Legislature and has faced opposition from some providers and support from others.
Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, penned a letter Monday to Gov. Mark Dayton urging him to halt the union election. Mack said DHS and the Bureau of Mediation Services improperly narrowed the scope of who was eligible to vote on unionization. Instead of allowing any child care provider receiving assistance program funds within the last 12 months, as state statute reads, DHS limited the voting to those receiving funding in December 2015.
After the listening session, which lasted two hours, both Lueck and Heintzeman said they learned a lot from those who shared their experiences. Each focused on regulations and whether there are things that can be tweaked to encourage growth of access to day care providers.
"For a variety of reasons, I'm skeptical sometimes of the regulations and rules that people have to work within regardless of what they're doing," Lueck said. "The average person probably has no concept of how complicated that can make it for somebody just trying to do a good job. We have accidents and we have tragedies that happen, whether we like it or not. We have to be careful sometimes, because we can destroy things by making the world so safe."
"Some of the things were more strongly emphasized than I expected, some of the frustrations over a potentially overburdensome regulatory system," Heintzeman said. "On the other side of things, you have kids that passed away because maybe rules weren't stringent enough. That's a delicate balance."