Child care advocates warn against service cuts

MIDDLEBURY — More than 20 representatives of Addison County’s child care community gathered in Middlebury on Thursday and vowed to push for more state support for services they said are being stressed by the struggling economy and drug abuse within young families.
At issue was a meeting of the Addison County Early Childhood Council, a lobbying group made up professionals from such local groups as the Addison County Parent/Child Center, the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, the Counseling Service of Addison County and the Building Brighter Futures Council.
Their unified message to lawmakers: We know you have a tight state budget to craft and will be grappling with health care reform, but child care — and early childhood development in particular — is a long-term societal investment that should not be cut during tough times.
Donna Bailey, co-director of the Parent/Child Center, underscored the tough time her clients are having finding affordable housing. She and her colleagues noted the already limited affordable housing stock has become even more scarce in the wake of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene. Young, poor families often lose out in competing for cheaper, unsubsidized units that become available, she said.
“The most vulnerable families have the hardest time getting housing,” Bailey said. “We are seeing pregnant women and young families living in cars, and people who are not able to keep up with their rent. And if families blow it, it’s hard for them to get a second chance.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said an estimated 400 homes statewide were put out of commission by Irene.
“If Irene taught us anything, it’s that you might not be at risk one day, but more than at risk the next day,” said Kim Keiser, executive director of the Building Brighter Futures Council.
Providers acknowledged the state is putting up families in hotels if they can’t be accommodated in emergency shelters or subsidized apartments. But that stop-gap measure, they said, is expensive and unwieldy, particularly when it involves families of four or more people who sometimes have to use their hotel room bathtub for food storage.
Meanwhile, advocates said opiate addiction has been on the rise among their clients. Around 250 people turned out at a Nov. 30 forum in Vergennes about drug issues in the Little City (See story, Page 1).
“The opiate problem is here, and it crosses all ages and socio-economic groups,” Bailey said.
Ilana Snyder, co-director of the MJCC, said she has seen substance abuse “increase dramatically” among some clients at the center, including at least one instance of “both parents going into substance abuse counseling at the same time.”
And when parents are battling addiction, the children suffer, too, Snyder said. She added that advocates are working in concert with the Vergennes Partnership to revive a proposed child care program in the city.
In the meantime, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives are stepping in to pick up the slack for some parents who cannot properly care for their children while battling addiction.
“Right now, there are not enough services out there to meet the needs of children who need intensive services,” Snyder said.
To make matters worse, according to MJCC Co-director Barbara Saunders, the number of home-based child care providers is declining. Saunders said there were around 90 home-based providers in the county a few years ago. That numbers has now dropped to 58, she said.
“That is having a significant impact,” Saunders said. “We know that children are going somewhere; we are just not sure where they are going, and that is concerning.”
Listening intently to the advocates’ concerns were Lanpher; Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury; and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, who is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. They said they would bring the group’s concerns to Montpelier when the 2012 legislative session kicks off early next month.
Ayer acknowledged that state finances will be tight, but said child care services should rank high in the budgetary pecking order.
“My takeaway from this is that we have choices about where we invest, and we really need to look at the children, because this is their foundation,” Ayer said of the early, formative years, which she said are crucial to brain development.
Early childhood advocates statewide have set a goal of talking with every legislator before the 2012 session begins to discuss the importance of the quality of early care and education in Vermont. The Early Childhood Council of Addison County is participating in that effort.
“The future prosperity of our society will be determined by the health and development of our children,” Saunders said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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