As the city moves to overhaul its public child care system, officials are looking to recruit new allies into the fight: “informal” providers who currently receive public funds to care for children. The initiative, which also institutes background checks on informal providers, comes less than a year after Jaylen Robinson, a 19-month old in informal care, was smothered and killed by his caregiver.
Still in the early stages of discussion, the idea is a small component of the massive child care overhaul announced last week. It marks the city’s first major attempt to regulate unlicensed care, which has grown dramatically in recent years.
The new city plan would also create a single enrollment process for the city’s four separate child care programs, encourage neighborhood-level applications, serve more infants and toddlers, and mandate full enrollment in each center, a controversial requirement among providers. By increasing efficiency, officials hope to create savings that will then pay for a modest expansion of care.
“We want to build on the contracted system,” said Ajay Chaudry, deputy commissioner for child care and Head Start at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, citing agency research that showing it to be more stable for families and better-targeted toward high need areas. “It’s an incredible resource that New York, compared to any other place in the county, is lucky to have.”
Roughly half of all expansion is expected to take place in “family day care,” based in caregivers’ homes, creating a business opportunity for ambitious informal providers. “It’s not sort of a command and control, ‘ok, let’s add this number of slots,’” said Chaudry. “This huge cohort of informal providers…could become quality family child care providers.”
The initiative also marks a noticeable change in agency priorities, said Nancy Kolben, executive director of Child Care Inc., a local advocacy group. “What we’re seeing is very strong leadership from the commissioner’s office,” said Kolben, pointing out that the mayor this year used city tax monies to plug a $61million hole left by state budget cuts to child care. “That’s a major step.”
The newfound attention will likely come in handy as city officials grapple with a difficult budget. Despite the overhaul’s modest initial goals, shifting the focus to regulated care could still run up against funding problems, since informal care costs $95 per week for a two-year-old, compared to $255 in a city-funded center. Even if advocates head off proposed federal cuts, there could still be a reduction in services as inflation eats away at the dollar amount. “That either leads eventually to a decline in the number of kids you can serve, or…squeezing from program to meet those fixed costs,” said Chaudry.
To Rosita Chase, a family day care provider in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the plan’s overall approach sounded good, particularly the streamlined application and full enrollment requirement. Though she is licensed to care for up to 12 children, the agency Chase subcontracts from has only assigned her two, forcing her to lay off one assistant. But the biggest question in her mind, said Chase, is whether the improved system will improve working conditions for providers. Even at full capacity, Chase earned so little that she returned to her former job as a nurse technician, on a part-time basis, in order to make ends meet. “There are no benefits, and the wages are very poor,” said Chase. “It’s not enough.”