Local and national organizations, state officials and child care providers themselves agree that Waldo County, like much of the rest of Maine, needs more child care providers. The reasons range from the state's economic health to the current and future well-being of its parents and children.

In a recently released report the national organization Commission for a Strong America painted a picture with statistics: Nearly 23% of rural children in Maine live in poverty. Waldo County has a child poverty rate greater than 20%. About two thirds of Maine kids under the age of 6 have all available parents working. Finally, more than a quarter of Mainers live in what the report calls a "child care desert," an area where there are more than three children under 5 for every licensed child care slot.

In Waldo Community Action Partners' 2020 Community Needs Assessment, 65% of respondents identified availability and cost of child care as a major or critical need, while just 35% said they had access to child care that met their needs. Barriers identified, according to the report's executive summary, were lack of access, cost of care, lack of options in their area and lack of flexible hours for child care.

In the needs assessment itself, 7.2% of all respondents said they were unemployed or underemployed because they lacked child care. Among respondents who said they were unemployed or underemployed, 25.2% gave lack of child care as a reason. And of those who said they rely on child care, 54% said they do not have access to care that meets their needs because of cost, hours, location or some other reason.

In addition, WCAP Early Childhood Director Jamie Williams provided statistics showing that, as of June 2020, Waldo County has 29 family child care providers, 24% of which were in Belfast, and 29 licensed child care centers, 32% of which were in Belfast, meaning that care is harder to find for those living farther from the city.

We also uncovered anecdotal evidence of how the difficulty of finding child care affects parents. When we asked District 98 State Rep. Janice Dodge, D-Belfast, for her thoughts on the state of child care availability and affordability in the county, she told us that she had been contacted by a constituent who had lost her job because "she could not secure daycare anywhere in the area." Her employer could not arrange for her to work remotely, Dodge said, so she lost her job. Dodge is helping the constituent contest her denial of employment. The constituent declined to be interviewed.

Even people who work in child care sometimes have trouble finding care for their own children, as happened to Williams of WCAP. She started looking in October 2020 and eventually found care for her 3-year-old in January by asking colleagues and posting a request for referrals on a parent, teacher association Facebook page. "I have a doctorate, and I still struggled," she noted.

Benefits of preschool

As for the benefits of early childhood education, the CSA study says Head Start has been found to increase high school graduation, college attendance and the chance of receiving a post-secondary degree or certificate. It also says at-risk 4-year-olds who attended Maine's Public Preschool Program scored higher on reading and math assessments in third and fourth grade than their peers who did not attend preschool. Research has also shown that preschool can increase rates of on-time high school graduation among participants, the study says.

Lack of early childhood education makes children less ready for school, Williams said, and also adds stress to their household, with parents who need to work wondering if their children will be both safe and nurtured.

She noted that the range of outcomes affected by children's early educational experiences, or lack of them, includes not only academic skills and performance, but also social and emotional skills essential for getting along in school and at work. In addition, early childhood education programs involve parents in their children's learning and show them how to use the educational system to help them. All of this is easier to do before kindergarten, Williams said, because the student-teacher ratio in preschool tends to be lower than once formal schooling begins.

What is available

WCAP's own preschool programs have both income-qualified and community slots, Williams said, and when it gets calls and there either is no available slot or the family does not qualify, it tries to help them find an alternative program. She would like to see federal poverty guidelines adjusted to help families affected by the so-called welfare cliff.

Melissa Lizotte has owned Melissa's Child care in Brooks for 17 years and now works with her two daughters. She has a Child Development Associate credential, and her younger daughter is working on obtaining the qualification, too. Her older daughter has an undergraduate degree in early childhood education. She said she serves 18 families and has 15 more on her waiting list. Once children come into her program, they usually stay until they are ready for kindergarten. The children in her care range in age from 6 weeks to 12 years, with school-age children attending before and after school.

"The need for child care in Waldo County is extreme," she said. "I have had some families on my wait list for as long as two years. I encourage all families to begin the child care search as soon as they find out they are expecting." Some of her students come from as far away as Winterport and Belfast. Her business is mostly by word of mouth.

Starting a family daycare is not easy, she said, though she has found the state licensing office cooperative. She has helped a number of people start programs, and said it has become harder over the years as more stringent requirements have been added. In addition, COVID-19 has caused some programs to close, and others to reduce their number of slots in order to comply with distancing requirements. There are fire and other code requirements to meet and often a home must be modified to comply.

The work itself is challenging, too. "It's not an easy job. It's definitely a rewarding job, but there's lots of challenges," Lizotte said. She noted that teachers work not only with children, but also with their families.

"Child care offers more then just a place for children while their parents work," she said. "It is known that children that attend a child care program or a program that offers a child the opportunity to explore the world with other children and adults, often transition better to school and have better communication skills, as well as the ability to function within a group."

Solutions

WCAP is now seeking grants to help families start in-home child care programs, she said. The nonprofit hopes to offer help with licensure, training and more, and is building a network with similar providers across the state to do that.

The state is also trying to respond to the dearth of child care programs in Maine. It offers a Child Care Subsidy Program to eligible families where the parents are working, attending school or taking part in a job training program. The subsidy has a financial incentive for families who enroll their children in higher-rated programs where teachers have more training and there is more frequent communication with parents. In addition, according to Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Jackie Farwell, the Office of Child and Family Services is waiving licensing application and renewal fees for two years and offers training, professional development and technical assistance to child care providers through the Maine Roads to Quality Professional Development Network.

In addition, in the fall of 2019, Coastal Enterprises Inc., based in Brunswick, received a $400,000 federal grant to incubate child care businesses. CEI works with Maine Roads to Quality, Farwell said, "to support entrepreneurs starting a business in rural parts of Maine." The Child Care Business Lab consists of groups or cohorts of 10 to 15 people learning how to start a child care business together.

In March of last year OCFS released a memo outlining the process by which providers could apply for an emergency child care license to meet the increased need for care in the face of the pandemic.