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Child Care Funds Lacking

State's Restrictions Mean Many Poor Parents Get No Help

March 25, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer

Demand for state subsidized child care is expected to double in the coming year as strict new federal welfare guidelines push as many as 3,000 lower income parents into the workforce.

But Connecticut's primary child-care subsidy, Care4Kids, is grossly unprepared for the coming onslaught, family advocates say.

The program has been cut by $53 million, or 44 percent, over the last four years despite increases in demand that left 13,000 people on a waiting list in 2005.

The budget cuts have forced state officials to enact tough new restrictions on program eligibility. That, combined with what advocates describe as a laborious and demanding application process, has led to several thousand poor, income-eligible parents - about half of those who applied between November and January - being denied assistance after they asked, advocates say.

Without an immediate infusion of state funds and changes in the way the program is administered, advocates say, thousands of additional needy parents - many of them single mothers - will remain stuck on welfare because they can't afford child care.

Parents like Maura Zeller and Tona Coates are already struggling.

Zeller is a Western Connecticut State University student trying to better herself so she can get a decent job.

But because the Danbury mother of two isn't working, Zeller, 40, says she's not eligible for state subsidized day care while she goes to class.

"Unfortunately they don't see going back to school as something that is beneficial and contributing to the community," said Zeller, who is pursuing a degree in speech pathology. "But if I was working at McDonald's, that would be OK and that kind of makes me angry."

Coates, 27, also of Danbury, said program officials told her she had to be collecting child support from her children's father to be eligible. He isn't cooperating, so Coates has to borrow money from other family members and work part-time jobs until she gets cleared for a waiver. Coates, a full-time student, expects to graduate with a bachelor's degree in May.

"It's hard," Coates said. "Now I'm paying out of pocket. The money I have in bills is more than I have coming in. But it could be that I'm in a situation where my children's father was abusive and if I [apply for child support], he'll find out where I live. It makes me feel bad to have to go through all this just to get child care."

A bill allowing more families to use Care4Kids and raising the amount of money parents receive for day care is pending in the legislature.

Millions in federal reimbursement money that could help pay for such changes and avert a crisis is available, advocates say. But Connecticut chooses not to apply it to subsidized day care.

Federal assistance dollars that could be applied to Care4Kids are instead being used to offset costs for foster care and child abuse investigations when families are already in crisis, according to Peg Oliveira, a policy fellow and early child-care expert for the nonprofit Connecticut Voices for Children in New Haven.

This fiscal year, about $129 million in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grant money will be used to offset about 17 percent of the state Department of Children and Families' budget, according to Oliveira.

Using these federal dollars to support the state's massive child-welfare industry instead of using it to help struggling families gain financial stability is allowed under federal guidelines, but it goes against the founding principles of federal welfare programs, advocates say.

"Instead of using funds in a proactive way and helping families achieve self-sufficiency, they let things happen because they don't spend on child care and then try to fix it on the back end through DCF," Oliveira said.

The situation is particularly egregious given that Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the nation and could easily fund more day care, housing and other early intervention programs if it made the investment, said Richard Wexler, director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

"It's hard to know what's worse, the moral obscenity or the fiscal stupidity," Wexler said of the lack of child-care funds. "Connecticut probably spends proportionately more on child welfare than any other state. But rather than take on the "institutions lobby" - the powerful network of providers of group homes and residential treatment - the state chose to take the money from those with no clout in Hartford, impoverished families."

Officials at the state Department of Social Services, which manages Care4Kids, concede that new federal welfare demands will be a "driving force" in the need to increase child-care funding when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

DSS spokesman Matthew Barrett said the competition for scarce social service dollars has been fierce since the state started making sizable spending cuts to reduce its budget deficit in 2001. While state officials have started putting money back into social service programs as the budget stabilized, progress has been slow, he said.

"It is a question of new appropriations, and new appropriations have not been very forthcoming," Barrett said.

Today, state child-care subsidies are reaching half as many children in poor working families as they did five years ago.

But Barrett maintains the state is not "shifting" money from child care to DCF as advocates like Oliveira and Wexler contend. The state can't simply use federal dollars for child care because it doesn't get the money up front in one lump sum, Barrett said. The state must appropriate money for child care first and then apply for federal reimbursement. And that hasn't happened due to budget constraints and other priorities.

"The real critical issue here is in the state appropriations process," Barrett said. "That is how Connecticut decides how much is going into child care and the Care4Kids program."

Barrett said that while the state has reduced funding for Care4Kids, it has increased funding in related programs such as the school readiness preschool program run by the state Department of Education, Barrett said. That program has seen a $16 million increase in its budget from 2000 to today.

Oliveira says the school readiness program - while very good - only helps 3- and 4-year-olds, applies to day-care centers only and is limited to 19 of the state's poorest towns and others who can prove a critical need. Care4Kids vouchers, on the other hand, are open to children from birth to age 13, are available statewide and can be used for a variety of child-care settings including licensed family day-care homes, which many parents prefer.

The lack of state funding is not the only problem with Care4Kids. Other obstacles are hurting low-income families' access to affordable child care, said Oliveira.

In response to state budget cuts, DSS in 2002 eliminated access to Care4Kids for just the segment of the population that used it most - the working poor. Low-income families where a parent is working but not on state welfare assistance - which once accounted for nearly half of all program recipients - were no longer eligible; only families that were on assistance and working were eligible.

More than 13,000 families who were no longer eligible were placed on a waiting list. Those families were allowed access to the program again in 2005 but by then, advocates said, the damage was done.

The tighter enrollment guidelines in 2002 led to a huge drop in enrollment and resulted in unused money appropriated to the Care4Kids program to the tune of about $28.4 million in 2005. Instead of using the money to expand Care4Kids eligibility or increase the individual amounts allocated to parents, state officials allowed the dollars to lapse back into the general fund, Oliveira said.

The state also doesn't pay parents enough for child care compared to other states, Oliveira said, and it excludes too many poor families because of tight restrictions on income limits.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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