Gazette photo by RANDY SNYDER
Deidre Mann (right), owner of eyecareOne in South Charleston, wants Cindy Gillespie (left) to work full time. But Gillespie will have to leave her job if she can't find child care for Tyler, her 4-year-old son.
By Philippe Shepnick
Cindy Gillespie didn't know the first thing about eyeglasses when she walked into South Charleston's eyecareOne in May. What she did know is Tyler, her 4-year-old son, deserved more than a welfare check.
The business wasn't hiring, but Gillespie's desire convinced the owner to train her.
During Gillespie's first week on the job, Tyler's baby sitter suddenly quit. Then Tyler's father left. Gillespie's 74-year-old mother and 78-year-old father watch Tyler - for now - but they plan to leave for Florida soon.
Gillespie, 32, wants to keep her job. She also wants day care for Tyler. Since June she's called at least 30 places to take care of Tyler. Each time she heard the same two answers.
"They're either full," the St. Albans resident said, "or they say if you can't pick up your child by 6 p.m., we'll charge you extra. Sometimes I get off work at 7 p.m. I can't afford the charge."
Gazette photo LEEANN SCANTLIN
Dee Wegert makes a necklace with another 4-year-old boy, Tyler Henson, at Tiny Tyke Prep Center, First Nazarene Church, Charleston.
As more counties adopt the welfare-to-work requirements as part of West Virginia Works, similar versions of Gillespie's story could be told by mothers and fathers throughout the state. Kanawha County will fall under the new rules beginning in October.
Many bosses may not be as sympathetic as Deidre Mann, owner of eyecareOne. She called day care centers from the store and gave Gillespie a week off to hunt for day care.
"Cindy can't be a productive employee if she's worried about child care," Mann said.
Mann hired Gillespie expecting her to be able to work full time in late August, when business is heavy. Mann runs a small business of eight employees, and every employee counts, she said. If Gillespie quits, she understands.
"If the state government can't provide day care that meets a mother's basic needs, what's the incentive to work?" she said.
The question concerns child-care providers and state government officials. As many as 30,000 West Virginia families received federal assistance last year. The new federal laws require them to find a job within two years. All aid will be cut off in five.
As more families search for work, the waiting list for child care could grow into the thousands.
The state subsidizes child care for about 28,000 children, according to research by the Governor's Cabinet of Children and Families. The cabinet also estimates that about 150,000 children need day care.
Some day care providers say the state does its best to stretch its dollars. On some elements of child care, they say, the state has a definite plan. Other parts need more work, but there isn't the time or the money.
"I'd like to make changes"
Judy Curry, the state coordinator of child care, leaned back in her office chair with a sigh. Gillespie's story mirrors some of the state's problems. Like Gillespie, many mothers don't work 9 to 5. Shifts may start early in the morning or late at night.
Most centers are closed between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., Curry said. The state does not know how to encourage centers to stay open at night, she said.
Gillespie may take Tyler to one center that's open late, but she's heard stories about chaotic kids. "I want a structured environment, where they work and play with the kids and practice the skills they need in school," she said.
If centers were inspected on a yearly basis, as required by the state, the center might have a different reputation. Until recently, two inspectors roamed the state. In October, there will be six, Curry said.
People who provide child care in their homes receive even less regulation. They voluntarily complete a checklist and send it to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Some requirements in the four-page checklist seem strict, but others aren't. For instance, not every employee must know how to read and write. A phone or CB radio does not have to be in the house, but they must be within 10 minutes walking distance.
Many people want to revise the requirements, Curry said. "I'd like to make changes," she said, "but I can't say when."
"It was so embarrassing"
Dee Wegert hopes one change happens soon. Twenty-five years ago, she helped open Tiny Tyke Prep Center at Charleston's First Nazarene Church. She now runs the center.
Wegert has worked long enough to be a grandmother, long enough to care for children whose parents attended Tyke. When she started, the state paid $3.50 per child. Now the state pays $11.
As Tyke's director, she's tried doughnut sales, hot dog sales, spaghetti parties and other fund-raising methods. For the first time, a local supermarket recently called about an overdue bill.
"It was so embarrassing," she said.
About 40 percent of the children at Tyke receive state subsidies. The total cost to parents is $72 a week or $18 per day. Sometimes the center struggles to cover basic expenses such as paying employees. Other directors have the same problem, Wegert said. If the state doesn't give them a raise, they don't know if they can stay in business.
"Some day care centers don't take subsidized kids because they lose money," she said.
Day-care centers receive $11 a day for every subsidized child older than 24 months and $13 for children younger than 24 months. Family care providers get $10 and $12.
The state hasn't increased its payments in six years, Curry said, and she doesn't know if the state can afford a $2 or $3 raise.
Home care regulation, evening hours for day care and raising state fees compete against other gaps in the state's day-care policies. Infant care must be increased. Many families need transportation to their child's day care. Many working families can't afford day care. Many families can't find day care on the weekends.
Curry and other policy-makers search for affordable solutions.
"It's very frustrating because I don't have enough time to do everything, and we don't have enough money either," she said. "But we're not alone. Many states face similar problems."
Day care down the block
State officials and day care providers hope that several new programs cover some gaps. The state has budgeted $26 million for child care through September 1998, Curry said. Close to $24 million will pay for subsidized care. The rest will be funneled to different programs.
Some money will create family day care facilities, which should open across the state in October. A facility requires two employees to monitor seven to 12 children in a home. No more than four children can be younger than 2. Currently, people who care for children in their home can have six children and two can be younger than 2.
Curry thinks the centers will help rural areas and counties without centers. State research found that nine counties lacked centers, while 14 counties had only one.
"People who don't have transportation can't take their kids to a day care center," she said. "But now they might have day care down the block."
Resource and referral agencies should make finding child care easier for families. Curry hopes they will operate statewide in October.
LINK is one of four referral agencies serving 21 counties. Since 1992, LINK has coordinated child care for five counties: Cabell, Wayne, Putnam, Mason and Lincoln.
LINK found good care for Tammy Frazie's three children and encouraged her to complete a degree in public relations at Marshall University. The 28-year-old is now off welfare and interviewing for jobs in Charleston. She recently applied for a position to study welfare reform for the state government.
"LINK gives people a support system," she said. "The director of LINK really encouraged me to get off the system. After I graduated, he even wrote me a good luck card."
If parents cannot find day care nearby, their child's elementary school may provide care before and after school. The state will pay 131 elementary schools in 36 counties to join a 2-year-old program called "School Day Plus." Each school can handle 20 to 40 students.
Fred Harrington studies school programs for the state Department of Education. Cost-effective day care is crucial, he said.
"Most of the times before and after school, these kids aren't doing that much," he said."Now they have a place where they can get help with their homework and maybe improve their grades."
Child care as a career
West Virginia's efforts are being noticed throughout the country. Every year, Working Mother magazine ranks child care in every state. West Virginia did not make the top ten, but the state received three marks out of a possible five for its commitment to child care and the availability of child care.
Helen Blank studies child care for the Children's Defense Fund and helped compile the Working Mother survey.
"West Virginia's doing a pretty good job, considering that it receives much less money than other states like California," she said.
State leaders have more ideas. They will continue a unique program that lets child-care employees earn college credit at work. The West Virginia Child Care Apprenticeship program gives employees two years of college credit for an associate degree in child development. Employees get raises and can teach at Head Start.
Blank says other states should create similar programs.
Several graduates of the program work for Karen Cochran. She runs three Kinder House Day Care centers brimming with 250 kids. Cochran's also the president of the West Virginia Association for Child Care Centers.
"The people who have gone through the program come out with a whole new attitude and professionalism toward child care," she said. "They see child care as a career, not just a baby-sitting job."
Still, Cochran said, the state needs to give more attention to child care. She praises Curry's efforts, but if the state expects people to work, families will need more options. That requires money.
"If there isn't enough assistance, then families will give up, and rightfully so," she said. "Their benefits may eventually run out and they are going to be back where they started."
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