Poverty, health care access, lack of transportation, substance abuse and a need for more mental health resources emerged as major issues for early childhood educators and childcare providers Oct. 15.

Local educators invited candidates to Belfast Free Library hear the daily struggles they face caring for children and families in Waldo County, in the hope each elected candidate might make strides toward solutions in the Legislature.

Wesley Neff works with the federally funded Maine Families program, which offers support to new parents at no charge through home visits. She said parents of infants face challenges ranging from meeting basic needs to isolation.

“Health care access is a big issue for many of our families,” Neff said, noting that includes access to birth control options and insurance.

In addition, many of the families fall at or below the federal poverty level. Some have dealt with Child Protective Services, or substance abuse issues, she said, and about 10 percent of the children have developmental delays. Others have experienced adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs.

“I would say parents themselves often have a personal history of trauma,” Neff said. “Any of us who work with people understand the devastating effects of trauma.”

Finding childcare is a barrier to employment for new parents, Neff said, and families sometimes do not feel supported when navigating complicated applications for assistance. A childcare voucher program is available, but restrictive, she said.

As a result, “we have this sort of hidden economy of childcare providers,” Neff said.

While the Maine Families program does not have a wait list, Belfast Area Children’s Center has a long one, Gina Madden said. Complicating the issue, she said, “many parents can’t afford the cost of care,” and are eventually turned away.

At the same time, many private childcare providers are closing their doors for the same reason — parents can’t pay the fees charged and the providers, in turn, struggle to make ends meet, Madden said.

Linda Stec, with Starrett Children’s Center, noted the cost of infant care has bypassed the cost of a year of college tuition. State reimbursement rates have not kept up, and are just $80 per day per student for full-time school-age children, she said, later adding the reimbursement does not come close to the cost of providing care. Stec agreed there are problems with the childcare voucher program.

“To apply for care, you have to have a job, but to get a job, you need childcare,” she said.

Worse, Madden said, is that the application is available only online, but many parents she deals with do not own a computer or lack internet access.

“Parents are totally overwhelmed,” she said.

Madden said state-licensed caregivers and facilities must complete mandatory 40-hour training sessions online but said there’s no funding offered. And the sessions themselves, she said, are “a waste of time” with no face-to-face training.

Family dynamics also have changed. Stec said at her facility, there are a half-dozen grandparents raising their grandchildren, and even a few great-grandparents caring for young children full-time.

“It’s different, and it is hard,” she said, pointing to drug-addicted parents as the reason many older adults are stepping up to care for children.

Waldo Community Action Partners’ Head Start Director Jessie Francis admits some Head Start programs aren’t meeting the needs of parents, because they run for six or seven hours a day when many parents work a typical 8-hour day. But, she said, the services are comprehensive — health and dental appointments, meals, snacks and education. And the education portion extends to parents, Deb Palmer noted.

“We believe a parent is the first and most important teacher of a child,” Palmer, of Waldo CAP, said. “We serve the whole family and not just the child.”

Many who volunteer with the programs later go on to become employees, Palmer said.

She cited poverty, depression and/or attempted suicide as common issues for families.  The change from being on government assistance to a minimum wage job presents additional challenges, Palmer said.

“They knew what they could count on before,” she said. “Now, it’s very unstructured.”

Broadreach representatives Shelly Wilbur and Norma Seekins spoke about families struggling to meet basic needs.

“I go into homes where there’s no food. No heat. No socks. No underwear,” Seekins said. “It would be helpful to find ways to increase access to basic needs so kids can go to school and learn. … How do we feed the children, how do we take care of them?”

Jan Dodge, Democratic candidate for House District 97 (Belfast, Northport and Waldo), suggested the groups represented work together, pooling their knowledge, to develop bills for the Legislature to take up.

“I believe that any money we invest in kids from zero to 18 is money well spent,” Dodge said.

Stec said, “We live in a country where I’ve heard lip service paid to families and children, but we need to see action.”

Also attending the session were Waldo County Senate candidates Rep. Erin Herbig, a Democrat, and former Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles, a Republican, both of Belfast; Rep. S. Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, who is seeking re-election in House District 96; and April Turner, the Democratic candidate in House District 99.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify: State reimbursement rates are $80 per day per student for full-time school-age children.