WASHINGTON – There are more than five infants and toddlers in Maryland for every one state-licensed child care slot for children under age 2, according to an analysis of state records by Capital News Service.
The state Child Care Administration listed 20,158 licensed spaces for infants and toddlers in home child care centers in April and 5,305 slots at licensed group child care centers.
Those 25,463 licensed slots can only accommodate a fraction of the 137,123 children age 2 and under in the state, according to Census population estimates for 1997. That is the latest year for which age-specific Census projections are available.
Officials concede that day-care capacity for toddlers definitely falls short of demand in the state, but they insist that in most other categories they have “handled the demand pretty well.”
“There are only a couple of areas where the demand is higher than the supply … those areas are infants and school-age children,” said Sandra Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee For Children.
She said that can be explained by the fact that not all children need day care and, for those who do, not all are going to state-licensed facilities. They may be cared for by family friends or relatives.
The 1990 National Child Care Survey said most working mothers either relied on relatives, brought caregivers into their homes or simply cared for their children themselves.
“We don’t assume that we are the only providers taking care of kids. We know that there are a lot of people who do it different ways,” said Skolnik.
But the 1990 survey also said that about 42 percent of working moms with children under age 3 relied on a licensed day-care provider, either a family home or a child care center. For those parents, it is never too early to start looking for day care, said providers in Maryland.
“For someone to call three or four months into pregnancy [looking for a provider] isn’t ridiculous even though they think that it is,” said Hanne Denney, a counselor with Anne Arundel County’s Childcare Resource and Referral Service.
Leslie Wesley of Young Care Inc. in Columbia said with a laugh that even that may be too late.
“If you want a space for your baby you should get on the waiting list before you become pregnant. The need is that great,” said Wesley. She typically has a waiting list of 30 to 50 children for her 115-child center, with the greatest demand for her 18 slots for infants and toddlers.
Anne Mosle, vice president for women’s policy at the Center for Policy Alternatives, said that the child care shortage is not unique to Maryland. “As a country, each state in the U.S. has a care gap for infants and the elderly,” she said.
Maryland’s shortage in infant care slots reflects the state’s high percentage of working mothers with young children. Mosle said 66 percent of Maryland’s working women have children under age 6, the fifth-highest percentage in the nation, according to a center report to be released next week, “Balancing Family and Work: Facts About Working Families.”
“Child care is demand driven. With more people in the work force, it drives up the need for child care,” Remy Agee, special programs manager for the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services.
Another factor in the scarcity of slots is the relative high standard the state sets for child-care providers. Maryland, which has been named one of the Top 10 child care states for five consecutive years by Working Mother magazine, allows no more than two children under age 2 — including the provider’s own child — in home-care settings. Child-care centers must have one staff member for every three babies.
“People look at our regulations and say that we are strict. We look at them as a baseline of quality … for the parent as a consumer,” Skolnik said.
Costly requirements for group child-care centers, such as individual cribs, changing tables, and hiring and training workers, are another reason why centers have fewer spaces for infants and toddlers.
Providers say the regulations make it harder for them to eke out a profit in a low-paying field. The result can be even lower wages.
“If we look at our caregivers, we probably pay them less than we do people who do our hair or trim our hedges,” Mosle said.
“In Maryland, the average child care worker makes 56.9 percent of the average wage of all workers,” she said. “Our dollars don’t reflect our values.”
Elizabeth Wiley, 41, of Silver Spring knows she won’t get rich working as a day-care provider, but the trade-off is worth it for her.
“I could get a job and make more, but I also have three kids that I want to be around,” she said. “That’s the reason a lot of mothers are willing to do it, because they want to be with their kids.”
But the number of people, like Wiley, who offer home care has dropped steadily since 1995 and that trend is expected to continue. Child Care Administration Executive Director Linda Heisner said that “as many (providers) as we get, leave,” and that many are moms like Wiley, who get out of the field once their kids grow up.
The number of group child-care centers, meanwhile, has been growing steadily since 1993 and is expected to continue increasing.
Overall, however, the odds are still stacked against parents seeking day care for their infant or toddler.
Denney, the counselor from Anne Arundel, gives parents a list of 10 potential day care providers to check out, using information about the parents’ work, home and the route between the two. It is not uncommon for parents to call back for more phone numbers after striking out dozens of times, she said.
“In certain areas we get a lot of recalls, two, three or four times,” Denney said.
“Every now and again I have people call back and say I’ve been through the providers in my area and now I need to look closer to work,” Denney said. “There are places in the county where infant care is plentiful, but that doesn’t help you if you work or live 20 miles away.”
For parents with special requirements, the search can be even more difficult. Shirley Fitzgerald watches eight children during the day and another four children until 11:30 p.m., for parents who do shift work. Some drive 30 minutes for her services, she said.
“In the last month I’ve already had eight calls to take infants,” said Fitzgerald, 42, of Hyattsville, who cares for two infants.
But Denney said the slots are there, for persistent parents.
“I’ve never had someone call back and say I’ve given up, but I have had cases where they called back repeatedly and then called and said, ‘Hallelujah, I found someone and I feel comfortable with them.’ That’s what’s most important,” Denney said.