Missing children

The recession and state cuts mean hard times for child-care centers.

AT KIDSCENTRE, a downtown child-care provider where abstract art prints hang alongside finger paintings, director Patricia Gorham has switched from managing waiting lists to recruiting more business. Her center, licensed for 82 children, is only about three-quarters full, and Gorham has had to lay off one teacher and let empty positions go unfilled. "A couple of years ago, we couldn't find people to work here," says Gorham's assistant, Jennifer Phillips, referring to a shortage of qualified teachers. "Now we can't find any kids."

In recent years, child-care providers haven't worried much about finding customers because the job-rich economy created more demand than they could meet—until the recession hit, that is. The Puget Sound region has cast off nearly 50,000 jobs in the past year, about half of those since December. Suddenly, day-care centers that formerly had children piled up on waiting lists have to go looking for customers to fill empty slots. And day-care teachers are joining the ranks of the unemployed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that enrollment declines are most common where one might expect—in working-class neighborhoods with parents dependent on government child-care assistance—but it's not just the charitable centers that are losing customers. High-priced child-care centers catering to the downtown professional ranks are also on the forefront of the downturn. Gorham says KidsCentre's losses have resulted primarily from layoffs in the advertising field.

At downtown's Seattle Infant Development Center, director Marna Towle says she's filled her slots for now, but the phone isn't ringing like it used to. Towle says she was giving tours of her facility up to 10 times per week—now she does only a handful per month. She attributes the decline in business to families adopting a single-breadwinner existence when one parent loses a job. "People are thinking long and hard about what their values are, and looking at their life and lifestyles a little differently [after Sept. 11]," says Towle. That trend is also creating a budget crisis at Little Eagles, a federally subsidized center on 2nd Avenue, reports director Marla Miller Gunderson.

The falloff in business has occurred so rapidly that it's impossible to measure how hard day-care centers are being hit. Child Care Resources, a nonprofit referral organization that keeps tabs on how many day-care slots there are in Greater Seattle, reports that the area actually has more slots now than it did in September, when terrorist attacks caused an economic lockdown and precipitated layoffs at Boeing and other major employers. But Child Care Resources CEO Nina Auerbach says her numbers don't tell her how many of those slots are actually filled. She says her staff is regularly fielding calls from day-care operators anxious about declining enrollments, particularly in outlying cities such as Kent and Federal Way that have higher concentrations of child-care centers. Dawn Larsen, child-care director for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, says some centers have lost nearly 50 percent of their business in recent months.

The state government's budget crisis is exacerbating the problem at subsidized child-care centers, says Michael Koetje, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Home Center in the Central District. Koetje says Gov. Gary Locke's recent cuts to child-care assistance, combined with a state policy that doesn't extend child-care benefits to parents subsisting on temporary work, have decreased his center's enrollment significantly. Koetje says his experience is also common among providers in the Rainier Valley. With revenues declining, Koetje says he's spending more time raising money from charitable foundations to maintain the budget and assist parents struggling to hold on to their benefits.

One of those parents, Kelly Pinkston, has been bringing her 5-year-old girl to Martin Luther King for more than two years, but she was denied child-care assistance from the state when she turned to temp jobs after being laid off from Safeco in December. Pinkston says the state won't continue her subsidy because she doesn't have to leave her house for a job every day. Pinkston can't understand that logic: "If you're a serious parent, you're looking for a job every day," says Pinkston, "but I can't look for jobs like I want to if I've got my baby here with me all the time."

Koetje says it'll be a shame if the combination of state cuts and low enrollment stall the effort to improve the quality and accessibility of child care. "When we go through these cycles, it takes time to recover," says Koetje, adding regretfully, "and we were finally on the verge of making a commitment to early learning."


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