Clackamas County commissioners pledged to ramp up efforts to make comprehensive child care more accessible after listening to numerous residents saying that the status quo is insufficient.
Community members voiced their needs and concerns regarding child care to a panel of commissioners and county staff during a virtual town hall on Wednesday, Oct. 6.
Panelists included Chair Tootie Smith; Commissioners Paul Savas, Sonya Fischer and Mark Shull; Community Relations Specialist Dylan Blaylock; and Dr. Adam Freer, director of the county's Children, Family & Community Connections department.
Blaylock began by referencing a 2019 Oregon State University study that found all 36 Oregon counties to be child care "deserts" for infants and toddlers, defined as a region where fewer than 33% of children in need of care resources have access to a slot. Additionally, Clackamas County is one of 27 counties deemed a child care desert for preschool-age children.
Per the study, just 21% of children under 5 in Clackamas County have access to a regulated slot in a child care program, tying the state average.
He also cited a 2020 report by the Oregon Employment Department revealing that many parents' access to child care outside of their home decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most affected group being parents of children aged 6-17.
"We also know that since the pandemic began, many child care programs have shut down, and an estimated 18% of child care programs in Clackamas County have permanently closed since this study was conducted," Blaylock said.
Parents, grandparents, independent child care providers and public health workers during the town hall shared personal experiences navigating the lack of child care resources in the county, posing questions and suggestions to commissioners and county staff.
Darcee Kilsdonk, executive director of Clackamas County Children's Commission, appeared at the town hall representing a nonprofit providing services geared toward early childhood, early intervention and social services for qualifying pregnant individuals as well as families with children under 5.
Kilsdonk said that the commission was under-enrolled by 40% in its Head Start program serving children between 3-5 years old but was fully booked in its Early Head Start program serving children prenatal to 3-years-old.
"There is not enough infant and toddler care in the county," Kilsdonk said, adding that the commission could "easily" fill another 100 slots on top of the 150 they have currently filled st maximum capacity.
"Even if I was able to secure the funding to serve more infants and toddlers, we have been on the search for more classroom space for the past two years and have been unsuccessful in being able to secure a space that was either able to be permitted through the county to become a child care site, or it had the appropriate spaces to have developmentally appropriate child care."
While the pandemic has likely facilitated an increase in the barriers to families' ability to access child care services, another contributing factor has been the state's minimum-wage increase in July, Kilsdonk added. That increase pushed many families just beyond the income threshold of roughly $27,000 annually, legally disqualifying them from service.
"If they make $28,000 (annually), they can't qualify for our services," Kilsdonk said. "They are struggling to find even housing that they can afford, let alone child care. So I also want to echo my partner's suggestion that there's definitely a need for a voucher system of some kind to help these families who don't qualify for federal and state-funded programs, but who still have a real need."
Responding to Kilsdonk's voucher suggestion, Fischer agreed that there needs to be a "gradual" way for families to transition from needing assistance to no longer needing assistance and it can't simply be a "cliff."
As a potential solution to the lack of availability, Savas suggested a community care network of child care services in which willing and able residents provide in-home child care services to families who would not have access otherwise.
Shull called the overall discussion an "eye-opener" and vowed to personally look into bringing financial relief to working parents living in the county who cannot afford child care, addressing several attendees who suggested subsidizing payroll for daycare workers among other implementations to reduce the financial burden.
Smith thanked all who took the time to participate in the session, adding that the issue of adequate child care access is "near and dear" to her heart and pledging that the county would begin taking steps to address the problem.
A current resource she highlighted was the Clackamas County Early Learning Hub, one of 16 learning hubs across the state comprised of a wide range of community partners dedicated to fostering early childhood education by providing support programs for children who are prenatal to 6 years old and their families.
Freer announced that as a next step toward the county's child care goals, county staff has partnered with the Clackamas Education Service District to assemble a "Child Care For All" task force, launching on Tuesday, Oct. 26.
"This is a very tough nut to crack," Freer said. "It's difficult, but we have a lot of good minds and we have a lot of hope... so we have confidence that we will make progress, and in time we will solve this significant challenge."
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