ANNAPOLIS – The number of Maryland parents waiting for child care subsidies soared to more than 8,000 in just seven months, since state budget cuts forced the Department of Human Resources to freeze applications to the program.
The budget for the state’s purchase-of-child-care subsidy program, which offers eligible working families help paying for day care, was cut by almost 19 percent, from $134 million to $109 million.
“The issue has to be viewed in the larger picture of Gov. (Robert) Ehrlich inheriting a $2 billion structural deficit,” said Henry Falwell, Ehrlich’s press secretary. “He was elected to make the tough choices needed to put the state back on a fiscally responsible path.”
The Department of Human Resources froze applications to the program on Jan. 15. Since then, only families receiving public assistance are eligible for subsidies – others are placed on a waiting list.
“The working poor . . . they’re the ones who are really getting hammered,” said Clinton Macsherry, public policy director for the Maryland Committee for Children.
In February, The Washington Post reported that 690 names were on the statewide list. Since then, DHR reports the number has skyrocketed to 8,282.
Macsherry said it’s actually even higher: 8,877.
Montgomery County and Baltimore City lead the state, each with about 878 names on their lists. Baltimore County follows with 812, and Prince George’s County has 775.
Roughly 33,000 children are served by the purchase-of-care program. About 8 percent of them are from families receiving public assistance, according to DHR. The monthly caseload has grown by about 668 cases since January.
The amount of subsidy is based on a sliding scale depending on income and family size.
Macsherry said the large number waiting worries him because no one knows what those parents are doing for help in the meantime.
“We don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “We certainly hear from parents who are very frustrated.”
Parents may be missing work, he said, pulling older siblings out of school to baby-sit or leaving children home alone or with people they shouldn’t.
“None of these situations are particularly appealing,” he said.
“Our concern is that, No. 1, parents who could use the extra assistance to go to work, can’t go to work,” said Laura Terrell, director of the LOCATE Child Care resource center in Prince George’s County.
Her fear is that parents will decide they can’t afford child care, so they will quit their jobs. Young parents not returning to school in order to stay with children is another concern. And “like any other county, we are worried we might see a resurgence of latchkey children,” she said.
There are 13 Maryland child care resource centers, which parents can use to help find information about child care in their areas. Those centers try to help parents on the waiting list find child care “in a price range they know they can comfortably afford,” Terrell said.
Some parents, she said, are turning to informal child care, finding a friend or relative to watch their children.
An earlier freeze occurred in 1993, Macsherry said, and lasted for more than three years, producing a waiting list of 4,200. DHR could not confirm the information.
During the last freeze, some parents took to leaving their children in libraries for long hours, particularly in Montgomery County, Macsherry said.
“A lot of it happens during the summertime and on weekends,” said William O’Banner, a senior librarian at the Wheaton branch. “Sometimes parents don’t pick them up until closing.” In Montgomery County libraries, children under 8 must be accompanied by someone at least 13 years old.
Children left in libraries is always a concern, said Doris Goodlett, associate director of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library system, but she hasn’t noticed any escalation in the problem lately.
“It’s an issue in public libraries generally,” she said. “Parents probably do think of us as a safe place, but libraries are public places.”
DHR doesn’t know if the number of people waiting will continue to rise, said Linda Heisner, Child Care Administration director. She said there is no time line for when the freeze may be lifted.
Macsherry expects the numbers to continue to rise.
“If they don’t, it will not be because the need is not there,” he said.
Some parents are frustrated by the waiting list and don’t bother to sign up, according to both Macsherry and Terrell, a problem in trying to gauge how critical the need is.
“We are encouraging them to still get on the list,” Terrell said. “Once the freeze is lifted . . . that’s one less step that they have to deal with.” – 30 – CNS-9-12-03