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Program assists families with child care costs

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 11:14 p.m.

As music played and Juanita Clemens clapped her hands, 11 preschoolers marched in a circle, then dropped onto cushions for the day's weather lesson. Looking at a weather chart, and glancing outside, they tried to determine if the day was sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy.

The scene at Noah's Ark Child Center is a common one, as working parents arrive at centers or the homes of relatives or neighbors each morning, relying on day care for their younger children.

Noah's Ark opened in South Greensburg not quite two years ago. Two couples, Anthony and Susan Miele and Mark and Juanita Clemens, purchased the former South Greensburg Junior High School, renovated it and opened with a client list of four children. Today, the center offers care to 40 newborns through school-age children, some of whom attend after-school and summer programs. The center is licensed for 53 children and, when it expands into the second floor, will be able to accommodate 68.

The center also accepts children enrolled through the county's Child Care Information Services, which assists qualifying families with child care costs. Juanita Clemens said the center has nine children enrolled under the program.

"We hand out (CCIS) paperwork to families," she said.

It's a conundrum facing many low-income parents: They want to work, or they have to work, but affordable day care for their children has proven elusive. CCIS, a program funded through the state Department of Public Welfare, hopes to provide a solution to the problem.

The program began in Westmoreland County in the mid-1980s with about 400 children participating. The program now serves 1,200 children in 700 families. The options they utilize include full-time, part-time, evening and weekend child care. It's what some CCIS staffers refer to as "parent choice" care.

The Westmoreland program is attempting to enroll more participants and has funding to cover additional children. "We would hope to be using all of our money," said Jennifer Mishler, program director.

In Westmoreland County, it is administered through a grant by Seton Hill Child Care Services. In Fayette and Indiana counties, the boards of commissioners administer the programs.

To participate in a CCIS center, each parent/partner in a qualifying household must work at least 25 hours per week; teen and foster parents may qualify for specific exemptions. Participants must document job start dates, income level and any child support they receive.

Income guidelines depend upon family size and range from a minimum of $17,720 to a maximum of $140,920 (for a family size of 21).

In Westmoreland County, parents can choose from more than 300 day care options, from regulated centers to unregulated care offered in private homes. They may also choose a participating, out-of-county provider, which might be a better option if it is closer to a work site. Some parents choose to have a relative or neighbor care for their children; those providers may also receive CCIS reimbursement, as long as the families meet income guidelines.

CCIS is expanding its services beyond simply funding care and is attempting to provide parents of all incomes with information. Staffers can make referrals for children with special needs or direct parents toward available day care in a specific community.

"Someone might call and say, 'I just don't know what to look for in infant care,'" Mishler said.

Others might not require financial assistance, but might, for instance, be seeking a religion-based preschool.

The agencies in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties are pilot sites for new software that will build an extensive provider database, Mishler said. Beyond listing an address and phone number, information can now be accessed about an individual provider's ability to care for children with special needs, which ones offer "sick care" for children who are ill, and staff education levels. Tracking requests will also allow providers to consider what services they might want to offer clients. The program is part of a statewide initiative and eventually will be available in all counties.

"The goal is to make the CCIS the hub of state child care needs," said Connie Wisniewski, resource and referral supervisor.

"Where we are coming from — and the state, I guess, is coming from — is assisting the whole family," Mishler said. "The hope is that some day they won't need the program."

The agency advertises on billboards, buses, on radio and through pamphlets sent to schools, community events and fairs and placed in doctors' offices.

This fiscal year, which concludes in June, the Westmoreland program's budget is approximately $6 million, spread out to cover costs for resource and referral, clients crossing the welfare-to-work bridge and the low-income population. Most clients are single parents.

In Fayette County, Frances Brownfield directs the 10-year-old program. She said the county has close to 250 day care options, including relative and neighbor child care. "We serve about 700 children," Brownfield said. "We have funding, and there is capacity available."

The county's budget for this year is about $3 million.

"We use all forms of advertising," Brownfield said. "I think people know about us. We always run into the occasional person who says, 'I've never heard of you.'"

Indiana County's program, which has 363 children enrolled, faced the possibility of putting names on a waiting list in January, when the state told Director Linda Berryman that no more money would be forthcoming this year.

"Then in March we found we were getting more money," she said. "It was very unexpected."

And very welcome to a county program making do this fiscal year with a $1.4 million budget. Advertising dollars have not been spent on television commercials, but the agency tries to reach low-income families through radio spots, ads in free publications and by staffing community events.

In Indiana County, Berryman said, the most acute child care need is for providers who are available evenings and weekends.

"We have enough providers," she said," but that is because people are allowed to use neighbors and relatives" for care when many participating centers are closed. She estimated the program contracts with approximately 140 providers, including relatives and neighbors.

"I think this county could use more licensed facilities that offer extended evening and weekend care," she said, "and more facilities in the very rural parts of our county."

Centers become less of an option in "outlying" areas, she said.

"We have (rural) families with children in kindergarten through grade six who absolutely have to have (after-school) care somewhere where the school bus can drop them off," she said. Those are often the children who are cared for by a relative or neighbor.

Parents' co-payments are on a sliding scale, rising in $5 increments. Statewide, fees average from $5 to $25 per week, depending on family size. Centers must be willing to accept the state's cap, even if their fees are higher. If their fees are lower, they are reimbursed at that rate. Providers can, Mishler pointed out, require the parents to make up the difference between fees and reimbursements.

"For a lot of parents, this is the first time they have dealt with child care," Wisniewski said, and many don't realize how expensive day care is.

Even parents who hope to rely on or who have been relying on neighbors or relatives are encouraged to explore day care centers around them, Wisniewski said, so that they can make an educated choice.

"If something should happen with their situation...they will know what their options are," she said.

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