Centers either adapt or close!

One visit to Mama Goose Day Care was all Anne Lauterhahn needed to decide it was the perfect place for her baby while she was at work as a teacher’s aide. Little Kaelyn would be watched in a cozy Glen Ridge home by licensed caregiver Caren Haynes.

However, there was a major roadblock: As a new mom just completing an unpaid maternity leave, there was no way she could afford it. She ended up being pleasantly surprised: Haynes has allowed her to pay on a sliding scale instead of the usual $250-$300 a week. In addition, she also agreed to open early for Lauterhahn and another set of parents, Margot Todman-Mack and Hah-neef Mack, Orange residents who need to head out early for teaching jobs.

“She was totally flexible,” said Todman-Mack.

Some of the quiet ripple effects of New Jersey’s record unemployment are on children: the cost-cutting their parents make in child care arrangements and the adjustments families endure when job loss strikes. In response, the child care field has been forced to change how it does business.

Day care centers report reduced enrollment as parents get pink-slipped. Family day care slots go empty — even as the newly unemployed swamp state licensing classes in hopes of starting a home-based baby-sitting business. One sign of the times: A recent class in Mercer County saw applicants from towns like Princeton and West Windsor — towns more attuned to private nannies and high-end preschools — as well as two men looking to join their ranks.

“We’re getting a whole different pool of people,” said Cecelia Aerstin, director of resource development for the Child Care Connection of Mercer County.

For some working poor, even a small cutback in hours can have a devastating effect: If their job drops below 30 hours a week, they no longer qualify for subsidized care.

Any loss of employment has an indirect but immediate effect on children.

“With layoffs, people can have their kid here on a Friday, having fun and doing great stuff, and on Monday, he or she can’t come any more,” said Jon Tilli, senior program director of the Plainfield YMCA, where three-quarters of the 200 children who attend after-school programs qualify for subsidized care.

While some of those children will be cared for by grandparents or neighbors, Tilli said, “Unfortunately, kids are probably going home to no supervision.”

With child care often the second-largest expense in a working family’s monthly budget, it is a natural target when looking for ways to save.

Even affluent parents are becoming more cautious with their child-care expenses.

Joseph Schumacher, CEO of the Goddard School, a national chain with 57 preschools in New Jersey, said parents whose children attend for socialization and enrichment instead of coverage of a parent’s work schedule are dropping from two or three days a week to one or two.

In response, his franchise owners have had to be creative, offering free dinner coupons for a referral or waiving registration fees. Parents who tour one of their schools used to sign up that day or the next; now they’re taking two or three weeks to decide.

“It certainly is a more difficult time for child care,” he said.

The new economic climate gives parents more negotiating power.

Haynes, a 17-year veteran of home-based care whose parents often book a slot as soon as they know they’re expecting a baby, has had to be a nimble businesswoman to weather this recession. If a parent working from home wants to cut back to morning-only care, she’ll find a second family to fill the afternoon slot. “That’s the way I’ve been able to stay afloat in this economy, through taking drop-in care,” she said.

And knowing her small enrollment and Glen Ridge location make her “pricey,” she’s also had to be more open to accepting fees on a sliding scale. “Now, it’s really more important to be full than to hold out for someone who will show up and pay top dollar,” she said.

Child care referral agencies report day care centers and providers that used to turn up their noses at accepting state-subsidized children — whose vouchers cover only a portion of the regular fee — have quietly let it be known they’re now open to the idea.

A survey by Programs for Parents of Essex County revealed half of providers reported low enrollment was a major concern. Union County saw a center in Linden close recently for the same reason, while in Morris County, eight family day care providers have closed shop this year because they had no children in their care. In Mercer County, a center that was planning an expansion closed instead. In Monmouth, a center licensed for 120 kids closed as well last month.

Other centers have had to work out payment plans with parents who have fallen behind in paying fees.

The biggest impact on the children themselves is the upending of a daily routine brought by any change in a parent’s employment.

“Continuity of care is so important,” said Ginny Mahoney, of Morris County’s Child and Family Resources, in Mount Arlington. “That kind of disruption is hard.”

There is a plus side, of course: Children spend more time with their parents, and the family’s schedule becomes more relaxed.

Yet it also means the unemployed parent must somehow juggle child care with a job search — and children spend their day in a household that is suddenly under considerable stress.

Parents who cut back on outside care may fashion a patchwork arrangement using neighbors or relatives, said Beverley Lynn, executive director of Programs for Parents. Children may find the new personal attention to be a welcome change from the group care in a center, she said.

At the same time, they are likely to miss out on the more educational activities that typically take place at a center.

“When you have your child in a preschool, there are established routines and education. That’s often lost when there’s an interruption,” she said.

The churning enrollment caused by job loss does benefit some. Although the New Jersey Kids Count subsidy program for day care has seen parents leave the program because they lost their jobs, their departure allows a family on the waiting list to qualify for reduced-cost care.

As for centers, those in the child care field say the strong programs will survive. Or as Haynes, who has opened her home to babies and toddlers for 17 years, puts it, “People are still having children — and they still have to work.”

December 13th, 2009

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