Child care advocates appealed to lawmakers Tuesday to keep intact the $103.1 million earmarked in Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s 2006 budget to help poor families pay for child care.
The Department of Human Resources intends to shift $23 million of the funds allocated for child care vouchers in fiscal year 2005 to pay for deficits in foster care, its officials said.
Meanwhile, a waiting list for child care vouchers under the department’s Purchase of Child Care Subsidy Program has grown to 19,000 children, a situation that child care advocates said could lead to children placed in unlicensed care or parents forced to leave jobs.
The program provides vouchers for part of the cost of child care for low-income and welfare families.
The House Appropriations Committee heard a bill Tuesday to make sure money appropriated to child care subsidies remains.
“The legislation is urgently needed,” said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. “The parents of 19,000 children on the waiting list need access to high-quality child care so they can remain in the work force.”
The waiting list began in January 2003, after budget cuts forced the department to curtail voucher benefits for low-income families not on welfare. The list has only grown since then.
The department is not expected to serve those on the waiting list until July 1, 2005, if Ehrlich’s budget is approved. Then, 2,400 children are expected to be removed from the waiting list.
“We truly don’t want to close the wait list again,” said Judith Rozie-Battle the executive director of DHR’s Child Care Administration. “We have to be fiscally responsible.”
When the department begins to serve those on the waiting list, the subsidies will be limited to families of three earning $16,470 annually. Families who meet those qualifications will be considered for vouchers even if they are not on the waiting list, said Rozie-Battle.
But the department argued that passing the bill will inhibit its flexibility in dealing with foster care deficits.
“It ties our hands,” said Henry Nichols, the department’s chief financial officer.
The department has diverted $85.5 million from the Purchase of Child Care Subsidy program since 2003.
Those diversions, said child care advocates have affected the thousands of children remaining on the waiting list.
“Children either go to unlicensed care or, God-forbid the other option, the children are left at home alone,” said the Rev. Harold Tolbert, owner of Worldview Christian Center day care, which serves about 100 children.
The Brandywine center has lost 15 children in recent years because the families lost child care subsidies. Tolbert said he’s afraid those children went to what he calls the “black market” of child care — unlicensed care.
In Montgomery County, there are 3,046 children on the waiting list and another 1,394 being served. Last fiscal year, if the funds had remained intact, another 700 children could have come off the waiting list, said Carolyn Colvin, Montgomery County’s Director of Health and Human Services.
Money allocated for child care subsidies should go toward child care subsidies, she said.
“It’s a terrible choice that we force parents to make,” said Colvin. “Whether or not to feed their children and put a roof over their head as opposed to placing them in a quality child care environment.”