Penni Theriault, the owner of Lots of Tots Child Care, hosts storytime at her Princeton facility. (Maine Public photo by Nick Woodward)
In many parts of Maine, cost is only a small part of the child care challenge families and providers face. Even if families find a provider, they often end up on waitlists that can last for months and in some cases years. It’s part of a complex balancing act at one of the busiest moments in a parent’s life.
Many family-based providers have closed in recent years. Some local resources to help parents have also shut down, leaving families in search of quality child care overwhelmed and alone.
By Maine Public staff June 24, 2019
On a cloudy spring morning Down East, Lots of Tots Child Care owner Penni Theriault kneels beside a small gate, bottle in hand, and helps two young children feed an excited baby goat named “Trouble.”
Tending to farm animals is a daily ritual for the roughly two-dozen students at her Princeton facility, located about as far east as you can go in Maine, only a few miles from the Canadian border.
"My parents are like, 'Penni, my kid wants a goat, stop it!'" Theriault says. "But the parents are loving it. Because kids are going home excited, tired and dirty at night."
Theriault launched Lots of Tots about 30 years ago out of her home. She started out with just a few kids while caring for her daughter. Since then the business has grown. There's now a kitchen, a play room, a gated playground, and a few more employees.
And as many child care facilities in Washington County have closed, Lots of Tots is now one of the only local licensed providers.
According to figures compiled by the state's Department of Health and Human Services, the number of licensed family child cares in Maine dropped by nearly 40 percent over the last 10 years. In many parts of Maine, larger, center-based child care facilities have filled the gap.
But that’s not true in rural parts of Maine. Washington County now has 15 fewer licensed family and center-based child cares than it did a decade ago, a reduction of nearly 32%, according to DHHS. That translates to a loss of 305 slots countywide, or about 35% fewer.
Washington County licensed child care providers, 2009-2019
Washington County approved capacity, 2009-2019
Data from Maine DHHS
"I'd love to work with a child care down the road from me — helping them build up, helping them get started — because it's needed," Theriault says.
Experts point to a variety of reasons for the decline. Many family child care providers have retired. Some students are now served by public schools that have begun to offer pre-K. Limited health benefits, long hours and increased regulations have also led some providers to leave the field.
Many child care operators in Washington County now report waiting lists of more than a dozen kids, with no expected openings for more than a year.
Maine Public photos by Nick Woodward
Long waitlists have left parents like Tennille Hallowell of Calais scrambling.
"So, we found out we were pregnant. And immediately I thought, 'Oh no, how is this going to work?'" she says.
Hallowell says when her first daughter was born, there were no openings nearby, so she was forced to ask her mom, who had recently been injured in a fall, to step in.
"Everybody says it's hard to leave your first kid. I cried and cried and cried," she says. "I wasn't so sad about her leaving, but leaving her with my mother. She's a great grandmother, but she was afraid to pick her up and move her to the crib, to change her, feed her. She sat down a lot. And she didn't really move around. It was scary. I was nervous. I hated it. But we didn't really have another option."
After a few months, Hallowell eventually found a spot with a licensed provider.
Not just rural
The same anxieties are felt by parents in less rural parts of the state, even where there are more providers. In Bangor, Abbie Strout-Bentes says she and her husband started looking for child care openings while she was a few months into her pregnancy, which she thought would provide adequate lead time.
"A lot of places would say to us, 'You know, many women call as soon as they're pregnant,' and it sort of felt like we're failing as parents, because we didn't call right away," she says. "I mean I don't really believe that, but it felt a little bit like shaming that we weren't already on lists."
In Windham, Sophia Cunningham and her boyfriend are expecting their first baby in six weeks. She says she’s been calling around for months and hasn't found a single open slot.
"I called altogether 11 places," she says. "So, four, we are on waiting lists. Six did not call me back. And one I called yesterday and they haven’t called back yet."
Cunningham plans to take 12 weeks off from work as a pastry chef after her baby is born. That means she needs child care this fall. But the earliest she's been told a slot will be available is January of next year. Another place told her it wouldn’t have an opening for more than a year.
Cunningham says she had no idea it would be this hard to find infant care. She thought she'd be able to shop around and choose a provider. Now, she feels like she'll be lucky if she gets a slot anywhere.
"I'm just starting to panic," she says.
Start looking early
Lori Moses, executive director of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland, says she gets up to three calls a day mostly looking for infant care. She currently has a waitlist of more than four-dozen families vying for eight infant slots.
"And some people — I mean, there are tears," she says. "There's panic. People think they're being really proactive and will say, 'I just found out I was pregnant and I'm looking for child care now.' And it's like, well, if you had applied beforehand, that might work."
Meaning, would-be parents should get on waitlists before they've even conceived. But even with such demand, Moses says there’s no incentive for child care operators to expand capacity due to the high costs of infant care.
At the same time that costs have been rising and child care centers in Maine have been closing, advocates say that decisions made at the state level over the past decade have made it harder to navigate the child care system.
A decades-old system once helped connect parents with providers. The decision to ax it several years ago played a role in sending federal child care money earmarked for Maine to other states.
In 2011, the state ended its contract with a network of "resource development centers" across Maine that offered information about child care subsidies and other programs. Between 2006 and 2016, 1,391 child care centers in Maine stopped participating in the state's child care subsidy program.
The state does maintain a website, childcarechoices.me, where parents can search for local child care options. There's also a statewide network called Maine Roads to Quality, which offers resources and training to providers and has recently made strengthening family child care a focus.
Todd Landry, director of the state's Office of Child and Family Services, says the agency is also looking at how to provide more guidance for parents in person.
Labor of love
At Lots of Tots Child Care, Theriault says a number of pressures, including regulations, have made balancing the books difficult. And now, facing foot surgery, she's not sure she'll be able to serve the same number of kids, at least while she recovers.
"But I can't close this program. I just can't," she says. "I looked at it and said, 'OK, do I dwindle down my numbers so I'm paying one person to do it?' I can't do that. There is such a need. So I'm at that crossroads as to what to do."
Cutting corners in child care, many providers insist, affects the quality of their service, and so is not an option. Quality is also influenced by the teachers who work with young kids, and many early childhood educators in Maine see their low-paying careers as truly labors of love.
Maine Public reporters Robbie Feinberg and Patty Wight contributed to this story. The broadcast version of Feinberg’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Tuesday, June 25. The broadcast version of Wight’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Monday, June 24.