Thinking about having kids? You’re already behind when it comes to finding child care

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Choosing a child care provider can be a tough decision for parents. American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman Dr. Deborah Mulligan gives advice on how to find a safe day care for your child.

It’s so hard to find child care in Whatcom County that parents put their unborn children on waiting lists.

And the cost? It can be as expensive as college or a house, if not more so.

At Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham, Dawne Sheppard said she stopped counting after she got to the 100th child on the center’s waiting list. The center serves children ages 1 years old through 5 years of age.

“That doesn’t even include people that call and don’t bother getting on the wait list because the wait list is so long,” said Sheppard, the director and program supervisor. “There’s calls every day.”

The Associated Students Child Development Center at Western Washington University has a two-year wait on average, according to Keri Krout, program manager for the center, which cares for the children, ages 2 to 5 years old, of students and employees.

“It’s tragic,” Krout said.

There are over 300 kids trying to get into the Whatcom Family YMCA’s child care centers in downtown Bellingham and Barkley Village. They care for infants through age 5, when a child leaves for kindergarten.

If a pregnant woman calls the YMCA asking about child care, it’s too late.

“You need to start looking for child care in the county when you’re thinking about having children. That’s how bad this problem is,” said Josh Peck, who researched the availability and cost of child care in Whatcom County for the nonprofit Opportunity Council.

The Opportunity Council is leading an effort to expand child care in Whatcom County because finding and paying for it is a struggle for low-income and middle-class residents.

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Stephanie Oppelaar, co-owner of the Black Drop Coffeehouse, sits with her daughters Beatrice and Edith while they draw pictures at the Bellingham business. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

You don’t have to tell Stephanie Oppelaar it’s hard to find child care here. Her girls were on long waiting lists.

Or that affording it could be out of reach. At one point, she and husband John were looking at paying up to $1,000 a month for child care — and that was just for one daughter so that Oppelaar could work full time.

“Finding child care is so hard for parents. Almost every parent that I know is in the same bind that we are,” said Oppelaar, co-owner of the Black Drop Coffeehouse in downtown Bellingham.

For families, child care is a combination of stressful math and juggling.

Oppelaar was able to enroll youngest daughter Edith into WWU’S child development center last year when she was 3.

She had been on the wait list since birth.

That allowed Oppelaar to attend WWU full time, where she is majoring in biology with plans to teach high school.

Qualified students pay on a sliding scale based on income, which meant that the family was paying $1,600 a quarter for Edith to be at the center.

It’s summer and Oppelaar is on a break from classes.

But they can’t afford child care for their two daughters — Beatrice, 6, will enter first grade this year — so Oppelaar and husband John have to juggle their schedules.

That means they work less, cutting the family income by about 30 percent.

There’s another wrinkle. Oppelaar said she’s out of her federal financial aid.

If she can’t get a personal loan, then she can’t go back to school. Then Edith can’t be at the center at WWU, and there’s no child care that doesn’t have a long wait list.

“It just becomes completely impossible and it’s so stressful trying to do the best things we can for our family and trying to keep our heads above water,” Oppelaar said.

How big is the problem?

Whatcom County is known as a “child care desert,” especially when it comes to infant and toddler care, which are the two most expensive and the hardest to find. Child care for children with special needs also is scarce.

“We have this huge problem. There’s the cost aspect to it in that it’s too expensive for families. And then there’s the aspect that, even if you can afford child care, it’s just simply not available,” Peck said.

There are 11,578 children younger than 5 years old in Whatcom County. Of that, 7,724 children have parents who work full time, Peck wrote in his report, “Child Care Supply, Demand, and Cost in Whatcom County,” which came out March 19. It pulled from a number of sources, including U.S. Census data.

When discussing child care shortages and costs, the Opportunity Council and others are referring specifically to licensed child care centers or licensed family child care, which is in a provider’s home.

There’s a third category called “family, friend and neighbor care.” It’s unknown how many Whatcom County parents rely on this group. But a March report by the National Women’s Law Center said millions of families — of all races, ethnicities and incomes — across the country rely on such providers. And when it comes to families, grandparents are most often the ones who watch the children.

A number of national studies indicate that as many as 53 percent of children under 5 with working parents may be cared for by family, friends and neighbors, or in other informal ways, according to Peck.

In much of Whatcom County, there’s one licensed child care slot for every four children with working parents. In the Lynden area, there’s one spot for every five children whose parents are working, according to Peck’s report.

Meanwhile, the number of licensed spots for children in Whatcom County has dropped by 8 percent since 2012 — going from 3,555 to 3,260 by December 2017.

In a separate report, Child Care Aware of Washington said available child care in Whatcom County has dropped by 9 percent from January 2012 to December 2017.

The number of licensed child care providers in the county dropped more than 25 percent in four years — dropping from 147 to 110 in 2016, Peck stated.

As for the cost, the younger a child, the more expensive the care. The median rate to care for one infant in Whatcom County in 2017 ranged from $910 to $997 a month, while care for a school-age child ranged from $386 to $555 a month.

At WWU, a year’s tuition for state residents is $6,387, or $532 a month by way of comparison.

We’re not the only ones

Whatcom County parents aren’t alone in their struggle.

The state has some of the least affordable child care in the nation, according to Child Care Aware of Washington. For five years in a row, Washington has ranked among the top 10 least affordable states for child care.

“It is a serious problem. We have a crisis,” said Robin Lester, CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington.

Like the rest of the country, child care can be the biggest piece of a family’s budget.

In Whatcom County, a family of two adults with an infant and a preschooler in child care pays about $1,500 a month — out of a monthly family budget of $5,500, according to the United Way’s ALICE report that looks beyond traditional federal poverty guidelines to include a group that is “asset limited, income constrained, employed.”

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That is, their annual wages put them above the federal poverty level — $25,100 for a family of four — but they’re still struggling to pay for necessities of housing, child care, food, transportation and health care.

For ALICE families, paying for child care could take about 30 percent of their budget because they make too much to qualify for subsidies that might help them with the expense.

“This didn’t happen overnight. It’s been happening for a number of years,” said David Webster, director of Early Learning and Family Services at the Opportunity Council.

Added Oppelaar : “It seems to be a rampant problem.”

Coming up: Child care providers share their stories. What’s being done to open more child care slots in Whatcom County? What do those in the field mean when they’re referring to high-quality child care and why does that matter?

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Looking for child care?

Here’s what Whatcom County providers recommended parents do in their search for child care.

  • Call the toll free number for Child Care Aware of Northwest Washington at 800-446-1114. Explain what your needs are and the nonprofit will provide a list of licensed child care providers in your community and, should you need it, information on which ones accept subsidies.

  • Take a tour, meet teachers and get a feel for the provider and their space. “Parents need to feel comfortable with the people taking care of their kids,” said Kim Walbeck, director of Promise Day Care near Bellingham.
  • Ask how long employees have been working there. That could be an indication of consistency.
  • Get on their waiting lists — now, even if you don’t think you’ll need it for a while. “If you have the opportunity to plan ahead, then that’s your best route. Do not wait until the last minute,” cautioned Dawne Sheppard, director and program supervisor for Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham.
  • Washington state has a website where you can check on providers, make sure they’re licensed, and see their ratings. Go to findchildcarewa.org.