Critical care 

Child care crisis now being felt by local businesses

Sara Jane Magoon’s work day has neither a beginning nor an end. Typically, she’s downstairs by 7 a.m., having had little or no time to shower. During the next 24 hours perhaps as many as two dozen children will come through her door. Some will stay the night. Others will be dropped off by their parents for a few hours in the afternoon. Some will be retrieved by their parents shortly before midnight.

Magoon, who works out of her home in Hamilton, is a rarity in the day care business: She’s one of only four day care providers in the Bitterroot to offer her services on something other than an 8-to-5 basis. “I work 24 hours a day,” Magoon says. “But that’s something that’s going to stop if I don’t get some support.”

In Magoon’s view, the difficulty parents have finding affordable, quality day care has reached a turning point in the Bitterroot Valley. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say there’s a child care crisis.”

The toys, the books and the dedicated staff that make for a stimulating day care environment cost money. Magoon was recently denied a state grant that would have funded her day care center $10,000 a year for three years, money that would have been spent on play equipment and a much-needed third employee. Magoon is incensed about the denial, particularly because she believes it was partly a bureaucratic screw-up, and because she has 250 hours of Head Start day care provider training under her belt. The state requires only eight hours of training annually for a provider to be licensed.

For Patty Burkhardt, Magoon is a godsend, and she’s doing what she can to keep Magoon in business. Burkhardt is a resource and referral specialist with Child Care Resources, a state, federal and privately funded, non-profit organization that links day care providers with families in Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties. There are plenty of families, but few providers. In Ravalli County in particular, the demand far surpasses the supply.

In recent years Ravalli County has evolved into a 24-hour economy. Casinos, nursing homes, convenience stores, supermarkets and restaurants are open late into the evening, or never close at all. And they all have voracious appetites for minimum wage workers willing to work split shifts, graveyard, swing shift and weekends. For working parents, odd hours are especially tough duty because the majority of Ravalli County’s 45 state-licensed day care centers are open only during regular business hours. Few take children at night or on the weekends, and fewer still take infants or toddlers.

“There’s very few that will do extended hours because there’s a high burnout rate,” says Burkhardt. “You just can’t do it. You can’t do 24/7.”

The home healthcare industry, with its extremely unpredictable hours, is another nightmare employment situation for working parents. “It’s an hour here, an hour there,” Burkhardt says. For day care providers, it’s not cost effective to offer services for parents who work sketchy hours. The high burnout potential, and the lack of flex-time day care has forced some late- and weekend-working parents into making decisions they’d rather not have to make.

“I’ve been hearing stories lately where people aren’t making very good choices,” says Burkhardt. “Children are being left alone way younger than they should be. It’s a big latch-key problem.”

Robert Van Buskirk is a single father raising a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. He’s a chef at the Stock Farm golf resort community east of Hamilton, and because his hours vary greatly according to the season, he relies on Magoon to take his children at odd hours, sometimes for as much as 20 hours a day.

“My schedule is very unpredictable,” Van Buskirk says. “Finding a day care that would work with me was impossible. Thank God Sara Jane is a reasonable person and lets me drop them off early. I’m just lucky I have her.”

But if Magoon doesn’t receive funding to help her stay in business, Van Buskirk will have to quit his job and find something with more traditional eight-to-five hours, though in the Bitterroot, that will likely mean less money than he makes now. Other working parents who rely on Magoon may have to look elsewhere for day care. And for now, there really isn’t anywhere to look.

Last March, Burkhardt and others in the family values business—including Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Ravalli County Public Health and Head Start—met to devise a 10-year plan for day care providers in Ravalli County. Business owners and local government officials were invited, but none showed up. The only folks to show, says Burkhardt, were the “agencies that already know what the problem is.”

Even the Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce, according to Child Care Resources, focuses more on boosting tourism than on business problems closer to home. As Child Care Resources sees it, the day care problem is a business problem: A work force that can’t find affordable, flexible day care is an unstable work force.

That may be changing, however. Diane Wolfe, executive director of the Bitterroot Chamber, says the day care crisis didn’t surface in her office until earlier this year when her new administrative assistant, Tawnya Mortenson, had problems finding quality day care for her own two children.

“I didn’t know anybody who had a day care problem,” says Wolfe. “But we now have an employee at the Chamber who needs day care. We had to change her hours.”

Mortenson says that despite her own search for a good day care provider, and the need for an employer willing to grant flexible working hours, she, too, was unaware of problems facing parents who work odd hours.

“This is an issue I’m unaware of,” Mortenson says. “It affects our employers as well. If you can’t find employees because they’re not finding quality day care ... I think I need to get a hold of Child Care Resources.”

Meanwhile, Burkhardt is trying to convince the nursing homes and the hospital, which are clustered in a neighborhood west of Hamilton, to offer the same work shifts to their working-mom employees. If so, their children might all be placed in the same day care center for the same hours, making it cost-effective for those providers to keep their doors open.

“If you can help us out,” Burkhardt says to employers, “we’ll help you keep a stable work force.”

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