This is the first of a two-part series that looks at the childcare crisis in the Gorge. Part II will run in Wednesday’s edition.
That there is a childcare crisis in the Gorge will come as no surprise to parents and guardians searching for placement options.
According to a study published by Oregon State University titled “Oregon’s Child Care Deserts: Mapping Supply by Age Group, Metropolitan Status, and Percentage of Publicly Funded Slots,” all families with infants and toddlers struggle to find childcare placement, as do most families with children under the age of 5.
The study defines a childcare desert as “a community with more than three children for every regulated childcare slot.”
Lauren Kraemer, Assistant Professor of Practice with OSU Extension Service, estimates there are 11 infants and toddlers waiting for each available slot in Hood River County, a number she said doesn’t take into account the families who work in Hood River but live in The Dalles or White Salmon and are also looking for placement.
Kraemer has two children, ages 5 and 2, and is familiar with navigating the childcare desert in Hood River County. Though her first child was on several waiting lists and she and husband, Nick, visited numerous sites, they ended up using a series of nannies before putting together a nanny-share program with several other families. The cost was prohibitive, however.
“We felt strongly about following all the tax rules with a household employee, as well as wanting to pay a living wage, so the daily rate ended up being almost triple what a daycare center would have been,” she said.
So, when her first child turned three, they enrolled him in full-time, year-round preschool, the only program in the county that offers that type of care.
When her second child was born, she had already gotten him on waiting lists, but when she had to go back to work at the 12-week mark the family was still waiting for a spot to open up for an infant.
“We asked my mom, my mother-in-law and my aunt to all visit for a week or two at a time to try to get him a little older, and because we were waiting for a spot to open up for an infant,” Kraemer said. “It was so hard to imagine putting a tiny 3-month old baby in daycare with bigger kiddos and lots of chaos. With the help of family, we were able to get him to about four and a half months before starting at a daycare.”
That daycare did not end up being a good fit, so they were back on waiting lists until another spot opened at another in-home daycare. A little over a year later, they learned their current situation would be closing its doors at the end of this year.
“We’re back on several waitlists and trying to figure out what we’ll do in January,” she said. “We have almost a full year until he turns three and is eligible for most preschools, so we’re pretty stressed about what we’ll do.
“It’s worth noting we’ve had him on preschool waitlists for almost a year, since he was one,” she added.
What surprised the Kraemers the most with their initial foray into the childcare scene was the timelines for getting on waiting lists and how many site visits would be required.
“Enrollment happens in the late winter and spring, so if you happen to wait until late spring like we did, all the spots are full in most daycares,” Kraemer said. “Luckily, we were able to get in during July, but I would say a lot of first-time parents don’t know about navigating the timelines for limited spots.
“I’m honestly not sure what dual-income households with both parents working full-time are supposed to do.”
Wait list limbo
It’s unclear exactly how many children, including infants and toddlers, are waiting per available slot, said Nancy Patten, Child Care Partners coordinator and director of Childcare Resource & Referral at Columbia Gorge Community College, because it’s up to each individual provider whether or not to keep a waiting list and how many are on it.
“All childcare programs are private businesses, except maybe Head Start, which is federally funded,” she said. “They decide whether they maintain a list, how long it is—it’s individualized by them.”
However, she added, “If a parent is looking for care, they can expect limited options available with openings.”
Anecdotally, the waiting lists are long. “By far, the largest obstacle we’ve encountered is the limited number of slots for children under the age of 2 years,” said Stephanie Hepburn, a physical therapist for Providence who has two children, ages four and one.
“Each time we’ve needed to find care, it’s taken at least a few months to find a placement. When I was pregnant with our younger child, I started to get on wait lists when I was about four months along. We got the call that our current center would have room for our baby on our first day home from the hospital. I was so relieved that I didn’t need to spend my maternity leave worrying about whether we would have childcare when I needed to return to work.
“Unfortunately, that childcare center is closing at the end of the year, so we’re looking again for a new placement. We’ve been contacting sites since August and we have a couple possible leads, but nothing is settled yet. It’s been quite stressful,” she said.
Sophia Britt, a senior project accountant at DPR Construction, has an 8-month-old. She began her search for childcare—and was placed on waitlists—when she was 12 weeks pregnant.
“While I originally took three months of maternity leave, I ended up having to take an extra six weeks until a spot opened up for my daughter,” she said. “I offered to pay for a spot if one opened up before my maternity leave was up.”
The biggest hurdle for both Britt and Hepburn have been the lack of providers for infants.
“There are currently only three daycares in the Hood River area that take infants under the age of 1, and one of those places is closing in December 2019,” said Britt. “These spots are so limited and we are all fighting for a chance to get one of these coveted spots. One of these daycares was extremely honest and told me if they had a spot open, they were more likely to take an older child rather than a baby. It was extremely disheartening.”
“Even since we first looked for care for our older child a few years ago, there’s been a drastic decrease in the number of places who take care of infants,” said Hepburn. “Just off the top of my head, I can think of four places in Hood River that used to accept infants but have closed since, and two places that increased their minimum ages. Plus, another center is closing this year and there are a couple of other providers who are approaching retirement and are either not accepting new babies or are limiting the number of babies they’re taking on.
“It’s difficult to find caregivers for babies now, but it looks like it’s only going to get harder,” she said. “The childcare scene appears to be worsening here, with even more sites closing or hoping to close in the near future, and not many new ones opening up to take their place,” Kraemer said. “This is one of those challenging problems that everyone struggles with, though, and then doesn’t really look back once they’re on the other side. “I’m hoping that by telling our story, working with local partners and encouraging more dialogue on this issue, we can help address it at a systems level to make it easier on the parents and families that come after us.”
Part II will look at the costs of childcare, reasons providers are closing and placement resources.