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Sheila Custard’s stomach ties up in knots each weekend when she thinks ahead to Mondays and Tuesdays, the two days she struggles each week to find consistent child care for her 4-year-old daughter. It keeps her up nights, thinking about who will watch Jaelyn and how much they will charge.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, worrying about it all the time,” says Custard, who just under a year ago moved from Columbia, Maryland to the far northeast Denver community of Green Valley Ranch, after ending a stormy long-term relationship with her daughter’s father. “It’s just so stressful.”

On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, her adult son and his wife usually care for Custard’s daughter. But they’re not always available; both work, and they have four young kids of their own. During the school year, Jaelyn attends a half-day public preschool tuition-free three mornings a week at an Aurora elementary school. And each week Custard hunts for care for her on Monday afternoons and all day Tuesday.

“If [child care] was affordable, I’d find one consistent place to take care of her—but it’s not, so I can’t,” explains Custard, who works as an administrative assistant for a human resources management software and services company in Aurora.

Custard is like many Colorado parents, especially working single parents, who struggle to find quality, dependable and, most critically, affordable child care for their young children. Low-income Coloradans and families of color—especially Hispanic families—are most affected by “child care deserts,” communities where the demand for child care far exceeds the number of available options, according to a report last year by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning research and advocacy group.

Custard’s community qualifies as a child care desert, the organization found; only nine child care facilities are registered in the 80249 ZIP code where she lives. The largely black and Hispanic community is home to an estimated 2,452 children under the age of five, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“It was actually one of the biggest child care deserts that we identified in Colorado,” says Rasheed A. Malik, lead author on CAP’s child care desert report. “There are so many people [living] in Aurora and northeast Denver, but there really aren’t a lot of child care centers available to meet the demand.”

Parents recently learned that they lost one of the highest quality child care options in the area; Clayton Early Learning, which has gained national attention for its early child care education programming for low-income families, said it is closing its Far Northeast School in Green Valley Ranch for financial reasons.

Research has found that attending high-quality early childhood programs, such as preschool or Head Start, can help reduce significant disparities in achievement and development for children in poverty or from other disadvantaged backgrounds. High-quality child care has even been linked to better overall physical health in adults who participated in it as children.

Sarah Daily, a Denver-based senior research scientist for the nonpartisan research nonprofit Child Trends, says good early childhood education programs take advantage of the critical brain development that takes place in the first five years of a child’s life. “It’s a time when the brain can be hard-wired for success,” she says.

Daily also notes that day care or preschool can help provide children access to nutritious meals, and connect parents and family members to mental health support, pediatrician referrals and vision, dental, hearing and other screenings for their child.

Parents may also benefit from their children’s access to child care. A University of Quebec at Montreal study found that parental satisfaction with daycare “is a significant predictor of parental stress,” and that the effect may be most significant for parents in low-income families. What’s more, access to child care can help parents, especially mothers, access job and educational opportunities that can ultimately aid their own health and that of their families.

Limited Financial Aid

In Colorado, many financially strapped families turn to the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, known as CCCAP, for financial support. The program, which is administered by the Colorado Department of Human Services, helps parents who are homeless, working for low wages, searching for work or in school find child care assistance for infants and children up to age 13, as well as for youth with special needs up to age 18.

Custard says she applied, but was told by CCCAP she’d have to exhaust all efforts to collect child support from her daughter’s father before she could get assistance. She has started the process, but it has been frustrating.

Malik says many parents struggle, like Custard has, with completing the paperwork required for child care assistance programs.

“Most states are receiving tens of millions of federal dollars to defray the cost of child care for low-income families, but what we have found nationally is that only one in six children who are eligible for assistance are actually receiving it,” he says. “For those who try, there are often a lot of hoops and paperwork that [the parents] have to get through to receive the assistance that they need—so you have to be really motivated to get access to that.”

Colorado ranks 23rd among U.S. states in terms of public preschool access, according to a report released in May by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which concluded that nationwide, “inequality in access to quality public preschool has gotten worse over the past decade.” The report found that 23 percent of 4-year-olds and only 8 percent of 3-year-olds in Colorado were enrolled in public preschool programs.

CCCAP administrators say they are well aware of the child care challenges many Colorado parents face and they’re amping up efforts to help.

“There are enough licensed slots for approximately 45 percent of children under age 5 in Colorado,” says Erin Mewhinney, director of the Division of Early Care and Learning for the state human services department. “While we cannot say what the child care situation is exactly for the remaining 55 percent, we believe many are left in the care of family, friends and neighbors, as well as other unlicensed care.”

Care Gaps in Colorado

The CAP analysis of some 7,000 ZIP codes across the country looked closely at Colorado alongside Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia—the only states that responded to its request for data on child care locations and capacity. It found that around 2.4 million Coloradans live in child care deserts, or about 46 percent of the population.

That’s a lower rate of child care deserts than many of the states studied. Still, the racial, geographic and economic disparities found nationwide were also evident in Colorado.

Child care deserts in Colorado, the report found, tend to be in areas with a significantly higher proportion of residents of color. Only 40 percent of white Coloradans were found to live in those areas, compared to more than 60 percent of black and Hispanic Coloradans. Among the report’s other key findings were that:

  • About half of the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metropolitan ZIP codes, home to more than 1.1 million people, are child care deserts.
  • About half of the Coloradans living in child care deserts are in the greater Denver area.
  • About 60 percent of Coloradans live in suburban ZIP codes, nearly half of which are child care deserts.
  • Colorado had only 11,334 federally funded Head Start slots in 2014—the second fewest of the eight states studied.

The results echoed a 2016 report by immigrant advocacy nonprofit Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (a Trust grantee). The group found that while preschool enrollment among 3- and 4-year-olds approached 100 percent in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods like Cherry Creek, it was as low as 16 percent in low-income, largely Latino southwest Denver neighborhoods. A survey of 300 residents in southwest Denver found that 45 percent were unable to enroll their children in local preschools because there was no availability. Some respondents also said the preschools weren’t conveniently located, were poor-quality or were unaffordable.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos Policy and Civic Engagement Director Corrine Rivera Fowler says the lack of access often means many students begin school unprepared and struggle to catch up, creating a “trickle-down effect” in other areas of their lives, including health: “We have to think about the whole child; not just how it may adversely affect their education long-term, but also their mental health—the depression they may face thinking they can’t succeed [in school].”

Tough Decisions

Custard, 49, who is white, is not in the racial demographic most adversely impacted by child care deserts in Colorado. But as a single, full-time working mom with a modest income, she fits the financial profile. She says she has checked in and near Green Valley Ranch, a solidly middle-class area, but she cannot afford most of the facilities.

As a result, Jaelyn has bounced around to a mix of babysitters, including neighbors, a co-worker’s daughter and family friends. Custard briefly considered hiring somebody she’d found online.

“She wanted $10 an hour to watch her in my home every day—that’s $90 a day and she wasn’t even licensed,” says Custard.

CCCAP administrators say they’re working on ways to keep parents from having to make tough choices, like the ones Custard must make each week. Without the program, many families in high-poverty areas likely would not be able to afford licensed daycare.

Yet CCCAP has its shortcomings. Parents can lose their benefits permanently or temporarily if they lose their job or fail to file the proper paperwork. Also, many child care providers avoid participating in the program, preferring private-pay clients, because CCCAP often pays below the market rate for care—a huge deterrent for a highly regulated, labor-intensive industry that doesn’t generally yield high profits.

Compounding Custard’s challenges is that many preschool and kindergarten programs in Colorado are only half-day, leaving many working parents scrambling to find a provider who can care for their children and also transport them to and from school during work hours.

At times, Custard has had to lose wages, clocking out from her job to pick her daughter up from school mid-morning to take her to a caregiver, only to return to work and drive back later to pick Jaelyn up.

Some daycare providers also give preference to parents who can enroll their children full time, which Custard can’t afford.

Sheila Custard watches her grandson Thaddeus and daughter Jaelyn at her son’s house in Aurora.

Roman Hollowell is owner and operator of Kids 4 Real, Inc., a small daycare center in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood.

“Naturally, [many daycare providers] prefer to have more full-timers versus part-time [enrollees],” he says. “Obviously, more money is generated from that full-time slot as compared to a child coming in one or two days a week. We have a lot of single parents at our facility, so we definitely try to work with our parents in any way that we can. Some facilities can’t afford to do that.”

Rising Costs

Custard’s predicament illuminates what most research suggests: nationwide, child care is increasingly consuming more of family budgets. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says child care should cost 7 percent of a family’s income at most—but 42 percent of families who pay for care for young children spend considerably more than that, according to a University of New Hampshire analysis of census data.

In 2015, the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care was higher than a year’s tuition at a four-year public college in most states, according to a report by the nonprofit Child Care Aware.

A CAP analysis of census data found that the average weekly cost of child care is about 30 percent higher than it was 15 years ago, well outpacing national inflation and cost-of-living salary increases.

Colorado families pay on average between $6,000 and $17,000 a year for child care, depending on where they live, according to a 2014 report by the Colorado nonprofit Qualistar; the average cost of full-time, center-based infant care is priciest in resort areas, followed closely by urban counties. Costs are especially burdensome for single parents in Colorado, particularly single moms, a third of whom live in poverty.

“The lower the income, the fewer [child care] options you can afford,” says Chaer Robert, Family Economic Security Program manager for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (a Trust grantee). “How can [parents] advance at all [in school or work] without access to safe and quality child care? We have to find viable ways to support them and to address this disparity.”

These disparities compound health risks for both adults and children, adding stress that can hurt mental and physical health.

Calls for Policy Changes

On the national front, President Donald Trump’s push for a broad overhaul of the nation’s tax code in April included a plan to allow working parents to deduct some child care expenses from their income taxes. But critics say the benefits would go largely to families that make $100,000 or more.

Economically challenged parents in Colorado have received some support from lawmakers in recent years, in the form of child care tax credits. CCLP is also pushing for a task force to be created to explore ways to provide parents who are enrolled in college or job-skills training with expanded support options, such as on-campus child care or access to financial aid dollars to pay for care.

“One of the best things [parents] can do for themselves and their kids is to raise their income and advance their education level—everyone benefits,” says Robert. “We believe this would be another step in the right direction toward providing the support that they need.”

The Colorado human services department has also collaborated with state lawmakers to push for legislative support they hope will significantly expand child care options for Colorado families. In April, Colorado legislators increased to four the number of unrelated children a home-based caregiver can watch without obtaining a child care license from the state. Previously, a license was required for anyone caring for more than one sibling group unrelated to the care provider.

“Bringing more licensing-exempt providers into the fold allows more providers to now be connected to community resources, such as training and quality improvement supports, and to improve their child care services,” says Mewhinney.

Under the new law, which will likely take effect in August, no more than two of the four children in care may be younger than 2.

Brief Relief

Custard hopes more long-term support options are on the horizon for families at all income levels. A recent job promotion will likely increase her salary just enough to disqualify her from many income-based child care and housing programs.

Sheila Custard and her daughter watch television at her son’s house.

For now, though, she says she’s too preoccupied with her current predicament to worry about it. After living eight months in her son and daughter-in-law’s basement, she and Jaelyn moved into a nearby two-bedroom apartment in March with the help of an income-based rent subsidy program. Even with the discount, she’s paying close to $1,000 a month on housing, leaving even less money each month for child care.

After I first spoke with Custard, she received some relief—albeit temporary. Jaelyn’s preschool teacher connected Custard with a stay-at-home mother who agreed to watch her after school on Mondays and Tuesdays. Custard is grateful for the help, which costs $25 a day, but the arrangement is only until the woman, who is actively looking for work, finds a job.

Custard is now searching for affordable, consistent summer care for Jaelyn.

“I have no idea what I am going to do,” she says, exasperation evident in her voice. “But I guess I will figure it out. … I always do.”

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Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Journalist and writer
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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