Lacey's child care

Lacey Sogge-Kielty of Litchfield is preparing to open her in-home child care facility as she’s about to complete her child care licensing process and training.

Melinda Jordan relinquished her nursing job at Meeker Manor Rehabilitation Center two years ago to look after her grandchildren.

But if child care providers were abundant in Meeker County, Jordan would still be employed.

“My daughter was on a waiting list for a center and had been for years,” Jordan, a Litchfield resident, said. “And child care providers had no openings, and then when she did find one, the lady had a baby, so no longer could watch them. So (her daughter’s children) had only been in child care for maybe a few months their whole life.”

Similar stories echo throughout Minnesota among couples who have to choose between either rearing a child or working, especially in rural areas due to lower population and meager resources.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar attempted to address the shortage when she introduced the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act bill in the Senate in February. The bill calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide states and tribal entities with grants to increase access to licensed child care services.

The Meeker County Child Care Team was formed to address the child care shortage in the county. The team consists of representatives from Meeker County Social Services, Meeker County Board of Commissioners, Litchfield Public Schools and ACGC, Litchfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Meeker County Economic Development, child care centers Stay ‘N Play Child Care Center and Kids of the Kingdom, as well as two family child care provider representatives, local Child Care Aware representatives and business community.

The team submitted a grant application and recently learned Meeker County was awarded the opportunity to begin the research process, which is administered by First Children’s Finance.

The team’s next step is using the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, a community engagement process designed to increase high-quality affordable child care in rural Minnesota, to analyze Meeker County’s child care problem.

“The way our community decides to proceed with any action will be based on the identified need,” said Colleen Kotila, owner of Stay ‘N Play Child Care Center and leader of the Meeker County Child Care Team. “Any changes will be closely considered for any possible impact additional programs would have on existing programs. A primary part of the RCCIP program is to support and maintain existing programs.”

The team is hopeful that interested community members and those impacted by the shortage will participate in this process.

“The First Children’s Finance will work with the community to develop the final timeline,” Kotila said. “They’re going to help do the surveying, gathering and synthesizing the data for the town hall meetings, where it will be presented.”

The town hall meetings aren’t yet set, but Kotila said they might occur sometime in January.

Meeker County witnessed a dramatic decline in the number of in-home child care providers during the past five years, as providers dropped from 46 in 2014 to 25 in 2019.

“Of all of the providers I’ve talked to about why they chose to close,” said Syndi Raiber, a licensing social worker for Meeker County Social Services, “they have all talked about how they will miss the children they had in care and that the daily work of the job itself has not been a significant contributor to why they have closed. Part of the reason for the RCCIP process is to help identify the barriers to providers staying in business and determine some solutions for it in addition to the steps that have already been taken.”

The Center for American Progress in a 2018 study estimated 26 percent of people in Minnesota live in a child care desert, which Child Care Aware of America defined as areas or communities with limited or no access to quality child care. Meeker County is ranked 46th amid the state’s 87 counties in overall family access to child care, according to data collected by University of Minnesota’s Child Care Access.

As for care types, 34 percent of Meeker County’s child care slots are close to families, compared to the state average of 47 percent. Meanwhile, 66 percent of slots near families in the county are licensed family child care compared to the state average of 41 percent, according to the same data.

Chelsie Stenzel of Litchfield knows the challenge those numbers represent. Expecting a child in January, she has called child care providers since July, but it’s been tough.

“No openings,” she said. “I don’t have a plan yet for what I’ll do if I can’t find a child care provider by the time I’m supposed to go back.”

Stenzel is on waiting lists at Stay ‘N Play Child Care and Kids of the Kingdom. She hopes slots will open by the end of March when her 12 weeks of maternity leave elapse.

Meanwhile, the shortage might offer an opportunity for some, like Lacy Sogge-Kielty.

For 14 years, Sogge-Kielty of Litchfield worked in child care, but left the field to become a special education assistant at Eden Valley-Watkins Elementary School. Now, though, she’s hoping for a return to child care work as she enjoyed it more.

“The last two years, I worked at school but found myself missing working with the young kids on fun learning,” Sogge-Kielty said. “So now I’m back at getting my license and doing what I long for. I have heard there is a shortage, I am not sure why though. Maybe it is the rules for the providers, but in my opinion, if you’re following the rules there should be no problem.”

Sogge-Kielty said she’s noticed some changes in the application process as she seeks to return to providing care to children soon as possible.

“I have been working hard on getting reopened for business,” she said. “Had the social worker out here for a home visit. Thinking I had all the paperwork done and ready to go. Nope, I have more to do. Way more than we ever had to do years ago. I can see why it can be overwhelming and stressful. However, in the long run, if this is a business you desire, it is so worth it.”

The licensing process is becoming less complicated, according to a Meeker County Child Care Team email. Although the process is becoming simpler, the group strives to ensure the safety of children is not undermined, the email said.

“An in-home family child care program is a small business,” the email explained. “There is no business that is without regulations from many sides. The licensing process is intended to actually assist in helping providers consider things like their own liability, insurance, federal food programs, workman’s compensation/employer requirements etc. … The licensure process relatively no more arduous than opening any business in your home.”

“As a licensing social worker and a parent,” Raiber said, “I can confidently say that there is not one single regulation that I would eliminate from our current statutory requirements. The statute draws a bottom line for providers for health and safety. What I actually see when visiting our local providers are services that often well exceed this bottom line for safety and programming for our children. Lowering the bar will not solve the problem for our need for additional quality child care.”

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