Baby Marleigh crawls under feet as she crosses the living room floor. Her dad, Kevin Mills, gave up his new career path to watch Marleigh due to unaffordable child care. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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First in a series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

Why care? A severe shortage of quality child care slots — and parents confused about where to turn for information — puts some families at risk. It also adds to workforce shortages as parents scramble to find affordable care.

Kevin Mills and his girlfriend have two young children ages 2 and 11 months. Mills also has his 9-year-old daughter from a previous relationship in the home. The babies were born at a time when child care options were almost nonexistent, thanks to the pandemic.

With two babies needing care, Mills’ family was fortunate for a while to have a grandmother who was happy to watch them, but then the babies’ grandmother became sick and could no longer help.

Mills recalled their desperate search for child care. They were on several waitlists, but never found anything they could afford.

“We checked so many different places,” Mills said. “I remember one specific day care, the waitlist was over a year long. There were a handful of day cares that did have spaces available but the price for two small babies — I don’t know how anybody is supposed to pay for that.”

With his girlfriend well into her career as a banker in Springfield and Mills looking to find an entry-level position, the couple decided it made more sense for Mills to stay home with the babies.

Mills and his family are hardly alone in dealing with the day care dilemma.

Parents, caregivers, child advocates and employers agree: Springfield, like many other communities in the country, has a child care crisis.

This series is published in coordination with KY3 News. Watch the evening newscasts all this week on the Ozarks CW and KY3 News, or go to their website for related coverage.

Why is child care in crisis?

Mandy Fearday, a teacher at Lighthouse Child and Family Development Center day care at the Messiah Lutheran Church, entertains children. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A joint reporting project of the Hauxeda and KY3 News found:

  • In a few short months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of spots for children at licensed day cares in Greene County dipped by one-third, a loss of nearly 3,600 slots. While many programs have since reopened, we are still down about 700 slots from pre-pandemic numbers.
  • Estimates show the demand for child care is even greater, with parents of nearly 4,200 children under age 6 turning to unlicensed in-home care, grandparents, family or friends to help fill the need.
  • The typical waitlist for child care at a licensed center in Springfield is anywhere from 9 to 18 months — even longer for babies under age 2.
  • The lack of options — and lack of a single, authoritative resource of information for child care in Greene County — leads many parents to make desperate choices, accepting potentially risky care options for their children.
  • The pandemic amplified an already broken business model for the child care industry, which offers low pay and minimal benefits to many workers. The average pay is barely above $20,000. About 100,000 child care employees across the nation have left the profession in recent years. Most child care centers in Greene County continue to operate at one-half to two-thirds of capacity due to staff shortages.
  • Yet, despite low pay and long hours for child care workers, affordable child care remains out of reach for many parents in low- and moderate-income households. Based on tuition rates charged in Greene County, a family of four with two children will spend about $22,000 each year on child care — and the median household income in the county is roughly $47,000. The federal government advises day care costs should be no more than 7 percent of a household budget.
  • The federally-funded, state-run subsidy program, which offers assistance to families based on their income, has several flaws. Rates paid to providers are based on a survey conducted every few years, and rates haven’t increased since 2019. Also, many providers don’t accept the subsidy program at all because of delays in payments and other complications.
  • For parents, the subsidy program can be a Catch-22. Prior to the pandemic, you had to have a job to qualify for the subsidy. But most people can’t accept a job without having child care lined up. Due to the pandemic, that rule was changed to allow for subsidies to begin while the parent has 90 days to find a job. But it’s a one-time, temporary exemption.
  • No wonder, then, that many people — particularly women, who often fill the role of caregiver — are not returning to the post-pandemic workforce. According to a recent study from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, the current child care crisis is causing a nearly $1.4 billion hit to the state’s economy annually due to child care issues and parents having to miss work or stay out of the workforce completely.

Lack of child care stalls careers

Kevin Mills gets down on the floor to play with his eleven-month-old daughter Marleigh. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mills' family is a good example. In the early days of the pandemic, he heard about the Green for Greene program, a federally-funded grant program designed to train individuals for “green” jobs by providing 13 areas of certification in order to prepare them for environmentally-focused careers at no cost for participants.

Mills completed the free five-week training program in the summer of 2020 and was excited to get started in his new career field, but that coincided with the babies’ grandmother becoming sick and no longer being able to provide child care.

Mills said he values having this time with his two youngest children. But at the same time, Mills worries about missed opportunities within his newly chosen environmental career path.

“I was so excited to go through that program because I felt like it was going to take me in a direction to where I never thought I would really get to go,” he said. “I was pumped. I showed up every day. I was early every single day. I aced my tests. It was great and it was rewarding.

“And then I kind of felt like, not that my time was wasted — but, I mean, kind of,” he continued. “I have this big binder of certifications … that I just keep tucked away in a drawer, and it kind of sucks that I didn’t get to put that to use.”

The Mills’ family has given up their child care search for the time being. Finding licensed child care spots is nearly impossible, Mills said, but finding infant care is even more difficult. Plus, infant care is more expensive because of the state’s strict caregiver-to-baby ratio requirements.

“Everything is just so expensive,” he said. “It’s great if both parents can work and provide that. But if I was to go back to work, it would be to just pay (for child care). So I have nothing to gain from that.”

With his children watched by another adult in the house, Kevin Mills gets a few minutes to himself for a cigarette outside. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mills said they are thinking they might try to get the kids into child care at the start of next year.

He encourages anyone thinking about having a baby or who are already pregnant, to learn about the current child care situation.

“Check into it before you have the baby,” he said. “Get on the waitlist early.”

Asked if being a stay-at-home parent is what he expected, Mills laughed a little.

Mills said he didn’t expect it to be “100 percent go from the time you open up your eyes in the morning till you finally lay them down at night.

“I didn’t get this time with my oldest, so I’m really enjoying the time I’ve been having with my youngests,” he said. “But some days, as soon as Mom walks in the door, I’m ready to clock out. It’s rough sometimes.”

Demand exceeds supply for licensed child care in Greene County

Mandy Fearday, infant assistant teacher, reads to Amelia Meusborn, 17 months. Paige Hoeman, 16 months, listens in. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

According to Child Care Aware of Missouri, Greene County had 9,587 licensed child care spots in 158 child care programs in September 2019 (pre-pandemic).

In July of 2020 — the height of the pandemic — those numbers dipped to about 6,000 total licensed child care spots in 94 child care programs throughout Greene County.

As the pandemic precautions wane and life returns to a new normal, some facilities were able to re-open classrooms and add spots. As of June, there were 8,919 total licensed child care spots in 136 child care programs in Greene County.

Still, that’s a permanent loss of nearly 700 licensed child care spots in Greene County since the start of the pandemic.

Of Greene County’s 19,173 children under six years old, 13,112 of them are living in homes with at least one working parent. Yet Greene County only has 8,919 spots at licensed child care centers. That means this community has a potential deficit of 4,193 licensed spots.

So what are all those parents doing for child care while they work?

Many have grandparents or other family or friends who care for their kids.

Others turn to unlicensed in-home child care providers. But if they are unlicensed and unregistered, there’s really no way to know how many are in operation.

“We can’t even guess,” said Dana Carroll, vice president of Early Childhood and Family Development for Community Partnership of the Ozarks. “The unlicensed, unregistered — underground is what we call them.”

Most all licensed child care providers in Springfield are at capacity and either have a waiting list or don’t bother to keep up with one.

Leota Ledford is the director at Mighty Marvels Adventure Academy, a licensed child care center in Springfield.

This is Leota Ledford, director at Mighty Marvels Adventure Academy.
Leota Ledford is director at Mighty Marvels Adventure Academy in Springfield. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

When the Daily Citizen visited with Ledford recently, she occasionally paused the interview to field calls from parents inquiring about child care spots.

“We get calls all day, every day,” Ledford said.

“It’s a good feeling, but also it’s a heartbreaking feeling because you can’t help every single family.”

Jennifer Davis operates a licensed in-home child care center in north Springfield. She is licensed to have up to 10 kids ages 2 and older. Her services are especially in demand because Davis takes children who have behavioral issues and those with special needs.

“I don’t have an opening till summer of 2023,” Davis said when interviewed a few months ago. “I’ve had to stop actually answering my phone because otherwise it rings all day. I just let it go to voicemail, because I know it’s going to be someone looking for day care.”

Many parents can’t afford the true cost of child care

Elise Wesley, right, lead teacher in the infants' room at the Mercy Child Development Center, is the center of attention for nine-month-old Fletcher Smith, in yellow. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Child care cost burden is the percentage of household income needed to pay for child care. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child care is no longer affordable if it exceeds 7 percent of a household’s income.

A recent study found that Greene County’s child care cost burden in 2022 is anywhere between 25 and 33 percent.

Average child care cost in Greene County

Infant/toddler spots $242 per week
2-year-olds $193 per week
Preschool $179 per week
School-age children before and after school programs $77 per week
Source: 2022 rate survey of 28 child care programs in Greene County, conducted by Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

That means a family of four with two children in child care will spend approximately $22,100 of their income every year in tuition. The median household income for Greene County is about $47,000.

While many families and single parents say they can’t afford these rates, Carroll with Community Partnership of the Ozarks believes these rates are actually lower than what it costs providers to care for children — which makes it even more difficult for child care providers to stay in business.

“Child care providers don’t charge parents as much as what it costs because they know (parents) can’t afford it,” Carroll said.

Because parents can’t afford to pay any more than what they are already paying, most child care providers are unable to pay their staff a living wage — which has led to the current problem of providers not having enough staff to keep classrooms open.

Employers struggle to hire because women can’t return to workforce

The Springfield Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel with staffing experts discussing hidden workers, during which the topic of lack of child care was discussed. Pictured, from left, Springfield Director of Workforce Development Sally Payne, Penmac Staffing Regional Vice President Nancy Riggs, Missouri State University professor James Kaatz and Mother's Brewing Company founder and owner Jeff Schrag. (Photo by Rance Burger)

It might surprise some to learn that Sally Payne, the City of Springfield’s director of Workforce Development, spends a great deal of her time focused on child care-related issues.

But, as she puts it, child care is the heart of workforce development and the economy. Payne is concerned because employers are struggling to hire as a result of parents being unable to find or afford child care. And she is concerned about those who work in child care and are not being paid a living wage.

“It was an issue pre-COVID. It’s been a barrier to employment for many, many years,” Payne said. “However, just like everything else, COVID just accelerated it and caused very erratic shifts in many of these industries.”

“I’m just glad we are starting to talk about it,” she added.

And since the current child care crisis is the entire community’s problem — regardless if you have kids or not — it’s going to take the entire community to come up with solutions.

“We have an obligation as a community, as a country, to try to do something to resolve this issue,” Payne said, “because it hurts the economy as a whole.”

Want to help?

Looking for ways to help child care providers and families?

  • Consider donating books or supplies to an existing child care center.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Hauxeda. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald