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Day Care Dilemma: Bemidji area faces shrinking pool of day care providers

Bemidji day care provider Jeri Francis helps the children she cares for build a Lego tower on Friday. She is part of a new initiative to increase the number of providers in the area, which has decreased in recent years. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Liam Miller, left, and Blake Johnson build a Lego tower on Friday at day care. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI—In the timespan of one day, Bemidji day care provider Jeri Francis recently had to turn down six people who were looking for a safe place to send their children. And, that wasn't even an abnormal number of requests.

Although she periodically has an opening, Francis already has a full house of toddlers and slightly older children darting back and forth from playtime to storytime to naptime.

Her business is one in a shrinking number of day care providers in the area. Beltrami County alone has lost 19 day care providers over the past five years, and there's reportedly a gap of more than 500 between the number of children who need child care and the number of day care slots available.

A new initiative is trying to reverse that trend. Bemidji has been selected to take part in the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, hosted by First Children's Finance. The goal is essentially both to encourage those who may want to enter the business and support those providers already in the game.

The process relies heavily on grassroots efforts. While the program offers resources such as educational opportunities, many of the solutions are expected to rise up out of the community itself.

A core team of providers, school officials, and administrators, among others, has been assembled to help brainstorm ideas. Later in the process, there will be town-hall type events to bring even more voices into the conversation.

"We find that many communities are struggling with the same kinds of issues, but they approach the solutions in their own unique ways," said Joan Berntson of First Children's Finance.

It won't be a quick fix, however. Berntson said the process could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months to complete. And, while the process does bring results, it may not eradicate the shortage altogether.

"We've seen some really good success in rural communities around this process," Berntson said. "(However), it continues to be a challenge regardless of this process; it's not a magic bullet."

Regional impact

The Rural Child Care Innovation Program isn't the first effort in the area to address the need for more day care providers. Last year, Blackduck received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to focus on some of the same issues in the day care industry.

Liam Miller, left, and Blake Johnson build a Lego tower on Friday at day care. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)The problem is not isolated to Beltrami County, either. The Center for Rural Policy and Development reported that the "number and capacity" of family providers in the state has decreased more than 25 percent since 2006. While it also reported that center-based child care has increased, rural areas of the state often are more dependent on family-based day care providers.

Although the problem exists across the board, it becomes much more urgent with parents who have infants. Day care providers are limited in the number of infants they're able to care for, and some choose not to accept infants at all because of the increased liability.

Bonnie Dickson knows first-hand the struggle finding day care can be. She heard it could take a while to find a provider with an open spot, so she began looking early in her pregnancy. It wasn't until she'd been turned down by the fourth provider that the realization began to sink in about how competitive the market was.

Since she started looking, Dickson's personally called a dozen day care providers, none of whom have had space available. She's also asked friends and family to be on the lookout for any possible solutions. To this day, she still hasn't found a place available.

"I try to hit the phone every day; every week, I'm looking and listening to see if someone's got an opening," said Dickson, who expects her baby to be born in April.

Those connected to the business can list a handful of reasons why day care providers—or at least home-based providers—have decreased. Some of them point to the heavy burden of regulations. Others say the compensation is too low compared with other opportunities in the workforce.

Some challenges have also appeared in the work itself that may not have been as prevalent in prior decades. For example, Francis, who's been selected for the core team as part of the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, said providers spend more of their time working with children with behavioral issues than they used to.

Whatever the root cause may be, there can be severe consequences for a lack of child care in an area. Some people have to quit jobs, push back their return to work, or turn down promotions.

Those possibilities are something Dickson has begun to grapple with. If she can't find adequate child care in time, she said she could possibly restructure her work hours and rely on family to help babysit. She said that wouldn't be an ideal situation, though. Further, she said that make-shift system wouldn't be possible at all if she decides to have more children down the line.

"It's a hard thing to have to figure out," Dickson said.

While some families have to restructure their careers around their young children, the shortage has pushed some families to alter their plans about whether or not to have children altogether. In fact, Berntson said as many as 50 percent of the people they surveyed through the work at First Children's Finance said the lack of child care has affected their family planning in one way or another.

"We've seen responses, even, where someone will say 'we've decided we're not going to have any children because of the lack of child care,'" Berntson said. "That's going to have implications down the road for communities."

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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