Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource
Cecilia Alveraz (in red) speaks with Eliza Reyes, a home visitor from Early Head Start at her home in Reedley, California in Fresno County.

In Los Angeles County, with a chronic shortage of affordable child care, some families who have struggled most to find nearby low-cost care may soon find some relief.

The federal Early Head Start program, for children under 3 years old, is providing $3 million to expand child care in “high needs zip codes” in Los Angeles County.

Head Start officials define “high needs” by using U.S. Census data and current Head Start locations to determine areas with high demand for child care but few available slots.

Although the grant supports only a small number of slots in child care centers and family child care homes, it highlights the chronic shortage of child care in Los Angeles and other parts of the state. It also draws attention to a greater need for state investment in these services, said Kim Pattillo Brownson, vice president of policy and strategy for First 5 LA, an early childhood advocacy organization in Los Angeles County.

“Child 360’s EHS Child Care partnership grant is an important step in the right direction because it addresses a dire shortage” of infant and toddler care, she said. Still, “the more modest federal investment also underscores why we need to continue to push the state of California to prioritize infant and toddler funding in its state budget. California still needs to address the vast infant-toddler care shortages that federal investment won’t reach.”

According to a report titled “Starting Now: A Policy Vision for Supporting the Healthy Growth and Development of Every California Baby,” published in March 2017 by Children Now, a statewide research and advocacy organization based in Oakland, the issue affects families across the state. In California, licensed child care providers are able to serve only 20 percent of all children 2 years old and younger. The report also says child care for infants and toddlers is “largely unavailable” and “prohibitively expensive.”

In Los Angeles County, the population includes 650,000 children under 5 years old, but child care centers and family homes have the capacity to serve only 13 percent of working parents with infants and toddlers, according to a report titled “The State of Early Care and Education in Los Angeles County.” A similar gap exists for families who are eligible for state-subsidized child care in L.A. County, the report says. Only 15 percent of those infants and toddlers who qualify receive subsidized care.

The Early Head Start grant was awarded to Child 360, formerly known as Los Angeles Universal Preschool, as part of the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, an initiative that partners Early Head Start with local licensed child care centers and family child care providers to enhance their programs.

Child 360 will select the child care providers that will receive additional funding to hire and train new staff, provide professional development and purchase new classroom materials.

The providers will also be able to provide community support services that are a standard component of Head Start, such as health screenings, dental and vision services. Families can also sign up for home visits from their provider’s staff members, who will discuss parenting skills and teach parents how to become more involved in their child’s learning.

Child 360 will use the money to provide those support services and create 122 new placements for infants and toddlers in child care centers and family child care homes in the designated “high needs” areas in Los Angeles County. The services will take place in at least 12 child care centers and family child care homes.

The primary role of the organization is to ensure that each child care center and family home participating in the program enrolls children who need the services the most, said Alexandra Himmel, the director of strategic initiatives for Child 360, who is overseeing the implementation of the grant.

For instance, the grant stipulates that 10 percent of available slots must be dedicated to children with physical or developmental disabilities. Himmel said that is a minimum requirement, and it’s possible that the final percentage of special education students funded by the program could be higher. There are no other percentage requirements, but it is a priority to enroll children from families that are low-income or homeless, she said.

“In some of these communities there are a lot of risk factors and these families are experiencing stressors,” Himmel said of the high-needs areas that will be targeted. “Without support and connection to certain services, the cycle (of poverty) continues and the intention of this grant is to break the cycle of poverty and to help families.”

Himmel said Child 360 is still in the process of identifying eligible centers and child care homes that will expand their services through the grant. Currently, three child care providers have signed contracts — two family child care homes and one child care center. Child 360 expects to have signed contracts with the next group of child care providers by February. The grant stipulates that all centers and homes must be under contract and providing services by August 2018. The initial $3 million grant is renewable every year through 2021.

Early childhood advocates say that while there is a shortage of affordable and high-quality child care affecting many families, it is critical that the state allot resources to families that may face even greater barriers to child care, such as low-income families.

Stacy Lee, managing director of the Early Childhood Project Integration at Children Now and a member of the writing and research team on a report released last year on infant and toddler care, said a majority of young children in California are in low-income families that can’t afford child care and struggle with where to place their children while they work full time.

Lee said public support for early childhood education has increased and more people understand the critical role early learning experiences play in a child’s development. They also know the key role healthy relationships can play in nurturing babies, she said. Lee pointed to a recent poll that shows that nearly 90 percent of California voters want the next governor of the state to commit to improving early childhood education by putting more money into programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Still, expanding access to infant and toddler care remains difficult, she said.

“The system has not shifted quickly enough and we have left so many families behind to make extraordinarily difficult choices around providing quality care for their children that impact the entire family,” Lee said.

One way to address those needs is to ensure quality programs are available, starting with families who are facing challenges because of poverty or other risk factors, such as not being fluent in English, Lee said. “When we have limited resources it makes sense to allocate them to vulnerable families first.”

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