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Subsidized child care: Is it enough?

Evelyn Bolyard, single mother, faced a dilemma.

To keep her 12-year-old daughter's Medicaid health insurance, Bolyard needed to work more hours at her nursing home job.

That meant the 31-year-old Largo woman either could work nights and leave her daughter with friends or she could risk losing the insurance.

For three months, Bolyard chose her job. Then, when the juggling became too complicated, she gave up her welfare benefits.

Bolyard is not alone. Throughout Florida, as thousands of single parents are forced off the welfare rolls and into low-paying jobs, mothers and fathers face the troubling challenge of getting off welfare without compromising their children.

And with Florida's welfare reform likely to pump thousands of new laborers into the work force, many parents are questioning whether the state will provide the necessary child care, particularly at night, to help them make that transition.

"Parents have to sacrifice the well-being of their children at times," Bolyard said. "As a parent, you want to protect and nurture your children and provide for them. But where are your choices? You don't have them. And it's the children who become the little victims."

The consequences can be deadly.

In the last week, two Florida boys were killed by their mothers' boyfriends while their moms were working night shifts, police say. The two boys _ 2-year-old Jonathan Flam of Tampa and 11-month-old Jeffery Petry of Jacksonville _ were the sixth and seventh Florida children to die of abuse in less than two months.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people have no family, and they are left with leaving their kids either with a boyfriend or a friend," said Bolyard, who was required to work 20 hours a week to retain some welfare benefits. "It may not be the ideal situation, but it's the only situation they have."

Social service administrators have known for a year or more that the state's aggressive welfare reform efforts had the potential to wreak havoc on an already strained child care system. Florida's welfare reform effort is called WAGES, or Work and Gain Economic Self Sufficiency.

To help solve the problem, the Department of Children and Families requested _ and lawmakers approved _ about $300-million this year for subsidized child care, said Don Winstead, the department's welfare reform administrator.

Next year's budget could top that figure. Dramatic reductions in the state's welfare caseload could provide $120-million in savings, some of which may be set aside for additional subsidized child care slots, Winstead said.

"As long as the caseload decline continues _ and we continue to be able to shift resources to meet child care needs _ the prospect for having resources for child care for WAGES participants looks very good," said Winstead.

So, the money is in place.

But are there enough child care centers and family homes to meet the need, especially at night and on weekends? The answer varies.

In Pinellas County, for example, seven licensed child care centers have some night-time hours. An additional 226 family child care homes have night hours as well, said Guy Cooley, executive director of the county's Coordinated Child Care.

One of the county's best-kept secrets is its Child Care Resource and Referral service, which matches needy parents with suitable child care options in the neighborhood. The service has lists of child care facilities that keep evening, weekend and even overnight hours for parents with challenging work schedules.

One center with flexible hours is Kids' Time in Clearwater. The child care center is open Monday through Thursday from 6:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. On Friday nights, the center stays open until 1 a.m. Saturday hours are from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m., said Wendy Gillooly, the center's director.

Most weekdays, Kid's Time houses about 80 to 85 preschoolers. At night, the number declines to about 10 to 15, and about 30 to 35 kids are housed most weekends, Gillooly said.

"When we bought the business, we were the only ones open nights, so we really thought we'd be packed," Gillooly said. "But we really don't have a lot of people utilize the night business."

Cooley takes the position that Pinellas has enough child care providers to meet the demand _ at night or otherwise. "At least it hasn't been proven to me that there's not," Cooley said.

But Cooley and others acknowledge it is not quite so simple.

For starters, Florida's welfare reform initiative is likely to pump thousands of new, largely unskilled laborers into the work force. Most will need subsidized child care _ many at night.

According to an ongoing study by the Pinellas County Early Childhood Collaborative, as many as 4,766 infants and children in Pinellas County alone may be lacking a slot in a licensed child care center when their parents are pushed into the work force.

"Right now, our underlying concern is what happens when WAGES participants take entry-level jobs that, unfortunately, are not good shifts," said Katie Yeates, Pinellas' child care Resource and Referral coordinator.

Throughout Florida, 80,000 child care vacancies now exist, according to the Florida Children's Forum. But such vacancies may not correspond to the areas of need, or to the ages of the kids who need care.

In Pinellas, for example, there is only one child care center with evening hours in the county's southern half. And in the north county, no child care centers with night hours exist north of Palm Harbor, said Yeates.

Lynne Thames, a Largo grandmother who has been searching for nighttime child care for her 13-month-old grandson, knows how hard it is to find evening child care, especially for an infant.

Thames' daughter, 21-year-old Katherine Dominy, works night hours at an Eckerd drugstore. Thames has just been assigned some night hours also for Eckerd, at corporate headquarters.

"It's hard to find anything around here, period," Thames said. "No one will take a 13-month-old _ day or night."

Thames is working with Resource and Referral to find a match for her grandson, Anthony Dominy. "We have scheduled one interview Friday," said the recent Georgia transplant. "I'm learning down here to take it one day at a time."

In Hillsborough, WAGES participants who cannot find suitable child care are offered vouchers to pay informal providers, said Nelson Luis, director of early childhood services for Hillsborough County schools. About 30 percent _ or 2,000 residents on subsidized child care _ have opted to use the vouchers. But Luis worries about such arrangements.

"People can pick whoever they want to be the caregiver: a neighbor, a relative, someone who hasn't had experience working with young children to do the child care for them," Luis said. "Unregulated care is the most dangerous."

Bolyard has seen several friends go that route, she said.

In recent weeks, as friends have found it difficult to remain on public assistance, several have simply moved in with their boyfriends for help.

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