Deadlines

90 days until no paycheck: Time running out for Illinois child-care providers in subsidy program

PHOTO: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Daycare children on a long leash and their caretakers enjoy a walk through a Chicago park

It’s hard to dispute the importance of training child-care providers on how to administer CPR or how to properly report suspected child abuse.

But Illinois officials are taking a no-holds-barred attitude toward enforcing the state’s latest round of safety training requirements, threatening to stop paying providers who don’t complete its to-do list in the next 90 days. Advocates worry that the state’s approach threatens a subsidized child-care program that serves 120,000 low-income children. The risk, they say, is further erosion of an already fragile and shrinking web of care, despite growing recognition and campaign pledges by Gov. Bruce Rauner that quality early education is crucial.

“It has been confusing — every letter they send out is confusing,” said Brenda McMillon, who runs a small, licensed center out of her Auburn-Gresham home and moonlights as a health and safety trainer for other independent providers. “I think it is great training, but I don’t like the way it was forced on people. You have to give it time to get it done and make it easy to get done.”

Three years ago, Rauner’s administration forced off tens of thousands of children from public child-care rolls when it rejiggered income eligibility criteria. The state ultimately reversed that decision, but many of those children never returned to the program.

Now Illinois could be headed toward further contracting subsidized child care if it cuts off providers who fail to comply with training rules.

The state began communicating the training protocol in January 2017. The original deadline to comply was Sept. 30.

As of July, only one-quarter of providers had completed the training, according to data provided to SEIU Healthcare, the union representing some of the providers. The state health services department, which administers the program, asked for an extension on a public records request from Chalkbeat for updated numbers and did not provide the request by deadline.

Meghan Powers, a spokesperson for that department, said her agency has sent 10 communications to providers in the last 19 months.

We have also promoted trainings on our website, social media and our child care phone line,” she said. The state also worked through a network of referral agencies to send email blasts and direct mailers.   

“Any privately funded child care center would be expected to be trained in these basic health and safety skills,” Powers said in a written response to questions, “and it’s only fair that children receiving child care through public funding receive the same level of care.”

Illinois’ last communication was dated Sept. 21. The state started verifying providers and gave them 90 extra days to submit any missing proof of training. After 90 days, the state’s letter read, “payments may be withheld.”

Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, said the letters and what have been continually moving deadlines are stirring up confusion and disruption.

“We’ve tried to engage the state about what that training looks like and how the training has been offered to providers, but what we’ve seen is that the state has moved forward without input,” said Seibert. “We’re concerned it is going to result in real chaos in the program and families and kids getting forced out.”

The state’s vast network of early childhood providers was rocked three years ago when Rauner’s administration changed income eligibility requirements for families seeking subsidized care then changed them back.

“That decision had a devastating impact on participation in the program,” said Dan Lesser, the director of Illinois policy and economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly, down 31 percent from 2015, when the income eligibility requirements changed.

Last year, to qualify for a state child-care subsidy, a family of five had to include a working adult and earn an annual household income of less than $51,000 or include a parent enrolled in a college or certification program.  

The number of participating providers plummeted, too. They’re down 56 percent from 2015 to 37,530 in June 2017, the latest public data available. Chalkbeat asked for an updated provider count but did not receive it by deadline.

Illinois developed its new training regimen to comply with a 2014 federal law.

But the way Illinois drafted its latest round of training requirements will harm the program, said Maria Whelan, who runs Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency.

“This activity is going to have a dramatically compounding effect in terms of the shrinkage of this critical program,”  said Whelan, whose group administers the program in Cook County, trains providers, and helps connect families with child-care options.  

Whelan says that, beyond shifting deadlines, the reporting system is hard to navigate and requires providers to have access to a computer and internet. Many providers live in rural areas, access the Internet on their phone and only have computer access through public libraries. Or they are grandparents and not technologically savvy.

To qualify for the subsidy, providers also must undergo a home visit by a monitor. The biggest percentage of providers in Illinois’ program — 54 percent in 2017— are license-exempt family members who care for children in the child’s home and whom the state pays about $16 a day. But the state still demands they take the safety training and be visited by a monitor.

“We absolutely support improving quality in terms of care that children receive in all settings, and we have been advocating on that agenda for almost 50 years,” Whelan said. “But we think there is an element of intrusiveness in terms of sending monitors into children’s own homes.”

Her group unsuccessfully lobbied the state to exempt relatives from the requirements, which is permissible by federal guidelines.

Now Rauner is in a tough position, since he has pledged to increase the quality of programs but faces a long list of providers who haven’t met the state’s high bar.

Ireta Gasner, the vice president of policy at the national early childhood advocacy Ounce of Prevention, which is run by Diana Rauner, said other states have run into the same problems with their training requirements. Directors of established child-care centers can make a plan to arrange time out of their day to comply; but that same flexibility isn’t always conferred upon smaller, self-employed providers — particularly those who care for family members at the last minute or for children whose parents work third shift or weekends.

“As states try to formalize more of the child care roles and provide trainings and support, you tend to see some dropoff of people who don’t want to participate in the system,” Gasner said of national trends.

The risk, however, of those states casting a wide net is that advocates then lose contact with families and providers who drop out off the rolls.  

“When their providers are being paid through (the Child Care Assistance Program), we can send information to them about trainings and supports and connect them with other supports for their care,” Gasner said. “But when we don’t know where where they end up, we lose our line of sight into the services they have.”

McMillon, the trainer who runs a center out of her Auburn Gresham home, said that 13 providers signed up for her last scheduled training session, which was set for four hours on September 30. When she arrived that day, only five showed up. “One lady — she just quit,” McMillon said. “She’s a grandmother, and she told her daughter, ‘I just can’t do this.’”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.