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Child care presents problems for parents

Kelly Platt picks up her son, Mathias Platt, from day care at the Vail Child Development Center in Avon on Wednesday. The Platts are among a number of Vail Valley families who struggled to find affordable childcare for their infants, due to a shortage of available spots.

This is the first article in a three-part series examining the challenges of finding and affording child care in the Vail Valley. Part two will look at the difficulties local child care providers face, and part three will look at some of the efforts going on at the regional and state level to alleviate the burden for families and providers.

EAGLE COUNTY — When it came to growing their family and having a second child, Gypsum couple Laura and Adrian Hughes found that the decision came down to one major factor — whether or not they could find and afford child care in the Vail Valley.

"We're hoping for No. 2, but (child care) is a major factor in how many kids we will have," said Laura Hughes, who works in marketing and design. "I'd love to have three or four kids, but there's no way I can afford that, and it's mostly because of the cost of child care."

The Hughes' aren't alone in their situation — a middle class family facing high child care costs, with both parents working. To complicate matters, Eagle County has a shortage of available child care spots, especially when it comes to infants.

“I know a lot of people who moved because they were going to have a kid and wanted to live near parents. We decided we would just have one kid so that we could continue to live here.”Linda WellsVail Valley mother

The challenge has been ongoing for years. Linda and Jake Wells, whose daughter Tatum is now 8, said that when they first had their child, they were on multiple waiting lists to get into a day care center. After they finally found a spot, the annual costs were so high that the family decided that one child was the limit they could afford.

"Without family living nearby, child care is your only chance," said Linda Wells. "We never considered moving because we want to live here. I know a lot of people who moved because they were going to have a kid and wanted to live near parents. We decided we would just have one kid so that we could continue to live here."

The income gap

According to Liz McGillvray, council coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council, families in resort-areas such as the Vail Valley especially struggle when it comes to child care. Federal programs help provide care for the lowest income families, but middle-income families — who don't qualify for federal help yet often don't earn more than their counterparts in bigger cities with more child care options — are left to make difficult decisions.

"(In Eagle County,) 22 percent of average family income is going to go to child care, which is staggering," said McGillvray. "We have a number of people who make too much money to qualify for subsidies but can't afford the high cost of child care."

To have your child in a child care or preschool program five days a week in the upper valley, families will spend about $11,000 to 12,000 a year — which is enough to pay for a full year of classes at a state university.

"The cost of sending your child to preschool is like paying for a year of state college tuition," said McGillvray.

Many families in Eagle County earn far too much to qualify for child care financial aid or any federal subsidies — according to the Federal Poverty Level, a family of four would be considered "poor" with an income of $18,530 annually or less — regardless of where they live. There are no adjustments for differences in cost of living from place to place.

In contrast, the Colorado Center on Law & Policy puts the self-sufficiency standard for a family of four in Colorado's most expensive counties (which include Eagle and Summit counties) at $83,904.

The worry, early childhood advocates say, is that in the struggle to keep child care affordable, day cares and families will sacrifice the quality of care. Or some parents will choose not to go back to work because they can't find child care, which takes workers out of the workforce.

Making it work

Parents are quick to point out that they don't think most local child care rates are unreasonable — but the costs are also pushing the limits for many middle-income families.

"We pay $52 a day, which comes out to $600 or $700 a month," said Edwards resident Kelly Platt, mother of 17-month-old Mathias. "But when I look at it, it's $5 an hour — which is a pretty low rate to take care of the person who is most important to you. But then again, it's kind of the limit of what we can afford."

To make the finances work, the family has cut out travel and luxuries like going out to eat. Platt says she's thankful she can work part-time, adding that if she had go back to work five days a week, the family probably couldn't afford to have Mathias go to day care two extra days a week.

For the Wells, their daughter was born at a time when the economy crashed, and as both parents are self-employed, their family income took a big hit. The roughly $1,000 per month it took to send their then-infant to day care seemed staggering at the time, said Linda Wells.

"We really worked to get through that time," she said. "We definitely both needed to work, so we had to put her in child care. At the time, we drove two super old, unreliable cars. We never took vacations or went anywhere. Once she went to kindergarten, we were able to turn what we spent on day care (into) two new cars. That's how much it was."

Not enough spots

Cost aside, many parents cite the lack of available care for kids age of 2 and younger as one of their biggest challenges. State law limits the number of children younger than 2 that can be in each licensed child care facility. Sheryl Westenfelder, owner of A Lemon and a Pea Children's Place in Dotsero, says that she currently has 12 infants on her waiting list. Her home-care business is licensed for two infants, and the spots have always been filled since she opened a few years ago, she said.

The shortage is so great that many mothers are putting their unborn children on the waiting lists as soon as they find out they are pregnant.

"I had put my name on the wait list in the first trimester, before I even told a lot of people I was pregnant," said Platt. "I put him on the list in February for him to start the following December. I didn't find out if we'd have a spot until November."

Hughes said she experienced the same waiting lists, something that shocked her when she moved to the Vail Valley from Denver, where child care spots for all ages were readily available.

"Here it was almost impossible to find a place that takes infants, and Jackson was 20 months old at that time," said Hughes, who said many of her friends have had similar experiences. "Our good friend just had a baby and because of child care had to go to part-time and have her mom move up here from Grand Junction to help with the baby."

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.