Clovis News

Return of child-care funds may be too late

California could have a plan this week to restore child-care subsidies that help parents keep working and stay off welfare. But the fix may come too late for some Fresno County families.

The subsidies, known as CalWorks Stage 3, serve California families who have moved off welfare cash aid and into the work force but whose incomes remain too low for them to afford the full cost of child care. About 55,000 children are served.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut the $256 million program in October to help the state with a gaping budget hole. A court fight delayed the cut-off, originally set for November, until Jan. 1.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed reinstating the subsidies -- with cutbacks -- by April. And Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, has asked the Department of Education to find money for the program until then. The program cost $30 million a month in state general funds when it was fully funded.

In most counties, First 5 commissions have stepped forward to bridge the temporary gap until state funds are restored.

More than 30 commissions pledged $34 million -- much of which was borrowed from other programs with the expectation that the state would reimburse the subsidies -- to keep the child-care program running through January. The commissions are funded by a state tobacco tax to provide services for children age 5 and younger. In the central San Joaquin Valley, commissions in Madera and Merced counties pledged support.

But Fresno County's First 5 commission didn't have the money -- nearly $2 million. So about 700 families lost subsidies Jan. 1 for about 1,700 children.

The commission was unable to shift money that already was committed to other programs, said First 5 commission executive director Kendra Rogers.

"We don't have reserves," she said. "Every dollar we have is budgeted every year."

The commission tried unsuccessfully to find other solutions for the parents, Rogers said.

Some Fresno County parents have found alternative child-care in the past month, but many still are scrambling to find affordable day care.

And some have quit jobs. "Quite a few ... notified us that they were going to have to quit their jobs because they did not have care, and they were having to go back and apply for CalWorks," said Lupe Jaime, deputy director at Central Valley Children's Services, one of three agencies that contract with the state to pay subsidies to child-care providers.

Some day-care providers have agreed to let kids stay enrolled in anticipation that state funding will resume.

James Fisher, who owns Kids Kare Schools, a family-owned chain of 11 schools in Fresno, Clovis and Madera, allowed children of 150 families to remain at his centers without subsidy payments in January. He said Monday he plans to continue the arrangement indefinitely for now and hopes to be reimbursed by the state eventually.

At Kids Kare schools, 50% of the enrollment is subsidized, Fisher said.

Fisher said he has dipped into savings to pay subsidies for families. He thought by now the state would have reimbursed him. "All I hear is they're working on it -- but I heard that a month ago," he said.

Weekly child-care costs are out of reach for most parents working their way off welfare.

The average weekly unsubsidized rate at Fresno day-care centers is $244 for an infant and about $174 for preschoolers for licensed care, said Karen Sheean, vice president of KinderCare operations. KinderCare, a Portland-based child-care provider, also has helped parents who lost child-care subsidies.

Raquel White, 38, of Fresno, earns $12 an hour as a reservation coordinator at Inspiration Cruises & Tours. A single mother, she has a 2-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who lives at home and goes to community college.

White said she doesn't receive Medi-Cal insurance benefits or food stamps, and child care is the only help she is getting from the state.

Child care for her 2-year-old daughter, Fallon Cooper, costs $1,100 a month at a KinderCare center in southeast Fresno. White has paid a monthly share of $100 and the state has paid the rest in subsidies.

Without the subsidy, White said: "I'm terrified it will push me back on welfare."

For now, White said, she is relying on KinderCare while the state cobbles together a bail-out plan. But she knows the child-care center can't subsidize her much longer.

Nancy Remley, a Department of Education administrator in the Child Development division, said Tuesday that a funding solution had yet to be hammered out.

In the meantime, parents in Fresno County wait -- and hope.

On Monday, White got an e-mail from KinderCare extending Fallon's child care -- until Feb. 25. She hopes the state subsidy will be reinstated before then.

"The only thing I can do is keep my fingers crossed and have faith," she said.