By Jonathan Shorman
December 11, 2017

If you’ve ever struggled to find child care in Kansas, it’s not just you. A new report shows child care shortages across much of the state.

On average, Kansas counties have capacity to meet only about half of the potential demand for child care.

Sedgwick County can meet 45 percent of potential demand, according to a report released on Monday by Child Care Aware of Kansas, which administers the state’s child care referral service.

The lower the percentage, the more likely parents will have trouble finding the right child care provider – or finding a provider at all.

“The problem is I’m hopping day care to day care every six months to a year because either their hours change, they’re not being honest on the rates, they’re not being very honest on the days or they plain and simply don’t seem like they care about even watching the children,” said Antwynette Williams, who has two children and works irregular hours at a hair salon in Wichita.

Statewide, some 163,889 children under six years of age potentially need child care.

Sedgwick County has about 31,500 children who potentially need care. But child care providers in the county are only willing to accept about 14,000 children.

“It appears that there is just not enough child care available to those families in many counties,” said Leadell Ediger, director of Child Care Aware of Kansas.

The Department for Children and Families funded the report. Taylor Forrest, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement that DCF “remains committed to doing our part to promote healthy families in Kansas.”

“We recognize that part of that involves providing support for child care programs whether that is training child care workers, improving the quality of child care or educating parents on how to select care for their children,” Forrest said in a statement.

Care also expensive

Leah Lavender, talent specialist at the Greater Wichita Partnership, said she has heard anecdotally from employees who have wanted to settle down in the area but choose to move because of limited child care options.

“So it is, obviously, a concern for employers because they want to keep their talent here,” Lavender said. “And with the limits of having to be on a wait list for months and months before you can get a place, a lot of people choose to relocate to be closer to home where they can have a grandparent or somebody help them out.”

The Child Care Aware report doesn’t address the cost of child care, though Ediger indicated future reports will.

The average monthly cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Kansas is $663 a month, or $7,951 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That represents more than half the annual wages of a minimum wage worker.

Infant care is even more expensive, costing on average $933 per month. Kansas is the 17thmost expensive state when it comes to infant care, the institute says.

On average, more than 21,000 children were receiving child care assistance a month in 2008 through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. That’s now closer to 10,000 a month.

Spending on child care assistance was about $78 million in 2010 but had fallen to $42 million last year.

Ashley Brown, a Wichita single mom, said child care for her 4-year-old son costs about $800 a month. State assistance helps pay for about half.

Still, $400 a month is a lot for Brown, who works at a Wichita doughnut shop.

“I work just to pay a day care bill, pretty much,” Brown said.

Possible solutions

Kansas Action for Children wants the state to strengthen its child care tax credit to improve access to child care. The Legislature reinstated the credit in June as part of its rollback of the 2012 tax policy.

The credit is based on a federal child care tax credit already in place. Separately, TANF child care assistance currently serves only 8 percent of Kansas children who could be eligible, the organization said.

“Streamlining requirements could allow more children to access it, as well as strengthening providers with a reliable customer base,” said John Wilson, the organization’s vice president of advocacy.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the state needs to cut red tape to ease the path for new providers to open, though he acknowledged the need for stringent regulations because the businesses deal with children. In Finney County, where Garden City is located, capacity meets only 28 percent of potential demand.

“We make it so prohibitive with all the regulations we have,” Doll said. He didn’t provide specific examples of regulations that could be cut.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, said regulations are necessary to ensure children remain safe in child care.

“But we can make sure that the regulation system is friendly from the standpoint that they’re there to help to get homes or day cares licensed and provide them the support to be a successful business,” Rogers said.

Kansas requires anyone who provides home care for more than 20 hours a week to two or more unrelated children to have a license. Licensed day care, group day care and child care centers must be inspected at least once a year.

Child Care Aware recommended greater scholarships, coaching and grants for potential child care providers. It also wants to encourage businesses to develop child care in communities.

The costs of starting up as a child care provider can be significant, said Angie Saenger, deputy director of Child Care Aware of Kansas. Training and equipment add up quickly.

“That could be a barrier to someone interested in providing child care,” Saenger said.

Even if the Legislature does something to boost child care access in the coming year, parents across Kansas continue to face challenges right now in finding providers.

Brown spent the last two weeks looking for a new provider for her son. She started him at a new place – a woman in Bel Aire – on Friday. It’s a “perfect fit,” she said.

But while the search was successful, Brown wasn’t working during that time. It worked out fine for her, but she acknowledged most parents couldn’t do that.

“I’m very, very lucky my employer likes me,” Brown said. “Most people wouldn’t wait. They’d be like, ‘Sorry, you need a new job.’”

Read more from the Wichita Eagle here.