Caring in Crisis

Emily and Nate Peterson have a problem. The couple, who moved to Bucksport and had their first baby just before the pandemic hit, discussed childcare when preparing to start a family, but they had no idea how obsessive they would become about the topic. “We’d heard so many horror stories, even before the pandemic,” says Emily. “Our friends in southern Maine would tell us about having to get on wait lists as soon as you decide that you want to have kids. It was the first question everybody asked when I got pregnant, and it was something we really worried about.”

Chances are, if you’re one of millions of Americans living with young children, or you’re in the process of adding children to your household, the Petersons’ problem is also your problem: reliable, affordable childcare is something many families across Maine and the nation can only dream of.

A version of the wait-list story unfolded for the Petersons as they began searching for infant care in Bucksport. As soon as they decided to move, Emily began scouring the internet, and talking to whomever she could about options. She said that in a way they were lucky the pandemic hit when it did. Emily found zero infant care in the Bucksport area, but with the announcement of the statewide shutdown, they were able to take that worry off their plate for a while. Eventually, Emily’s parents decided to move to the area part-time to help with taking care of their new grandson.

This kind of patchwork childcare is all too familiar for families in Maine. A few hours of time with the grandparents here, a trade-off between Mom and Dad there, maybe a meal together at the end of the day between loads of laundry and diaper changes. The Petersons’ son started at Bucksport Area Child Care Center when he turned 18 months old, and the center offers the safe, nurturing environment that Emily was so anxious about finding. Their daughter will start in the spring, but the anxiety remains. “I worry every week about staff turnover, and what we would do if something happened,” she says. “It’s happened a number of times in our community. Childcare centers just close all of a sudden, and it’s such a gnawing anxiety, that if something happens there, we’re all totally screwed.”

Emily says the childcare issue has been a big factor in her and Nate’s decision not to have any more children. “The logistics of living in rural Maine make it too hard—how to have another kid and keep everybody moving and happy and in the right places at the right time—we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to,” she says.

On the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Preble Street in downtown Portland sits a gabled building with a cherry-red front door. The former church is small compared to the eight-story giants it neighbors, but it offers a robust potential solution to the problem that the Petersons, and thousands of other Maine parents, face.

“A board member recently described us as ‘scrappy,’” says Camelia Babson-Haley, “and it’s true. We’re scrappy.” Babson-Haley is the director of Youth and Family Outreach (YFO), an early childhood education center that serves 60 families in the greater Portland area. The center places an emphasis on supporting homeless, teen, and immigrant parents, with more than 60 percent of the families it serves at or below the poverty level. Babson-Haley goes on to explain how “scrappy” accurately explains the characteristics needed in order to survive in the world of childcare these days. “We’re drowning. We’re broken. We’re crumbling. That’s what it feels like when you’re on this side of it,” she says.

The “it” Babson-Haley refers to is the national crisis facing childcare centers. After her 33 years in a field she describes as never not struggling, she says childcare providers are now more desperate than ever: desperate for better funding and more teachers, but also desperate to offer relief to burned-out parents.

In 2020 Babson-Haley was awarded the Maine Children’s Alliance’s “Giraffe Award” for her many years of advocacy in the field. The award also recognized her leadership at YFO through the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the pandemic continues to wear on, childcare’s already chronic difficulties have evolved into a critical workforce shortage. “Childcare is just going away. It’s diminishing, and if we don’t do something soon it’s going to completely disappear,” she says. Perhaps “completely disappear” is hyperbole, but if certain changes aren’t made, childcare will come to look drastically different, losing the diverse, vibrant educational and nurturing experience that many centers currently offer.

YFO is a good example of the kind of childcare organization that’s running short in Maine. It ranks a level four on Maine’s Quality Rating and Improvement System—the highest possible rating for a Maine-based childcare center. Highly ranked childcare centers employ trained educators to teach vibrant curricula that are designed to meet the needs of each child as they progress through developmental stages. Staff members are experts in social-emotional development, trauma-informed practices, and assessment. According to Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit working to translate the science of early childhood development into programs, resources, and policies, a whopping 90 percent of brain development happens between birth and age five. Without dedicated teachers and carefully designed curriculum, early childhood education will be lacking in the diversity, equity, and quality that are crucial for a rich learning experience during a child’s most formative years. Without places like YFO providing high-quality learning, a caring environment, and important foundational experiences, children can face significant learning delays that can have lifelong effects.

Efforts to bring new childcare providers into the field are underway in the state. The University of Maine at Farmington, for example, offers a robust early childhood education program in which students get hands-on experience at the college’s on-site center for teaching and learning. The center will see a major upgrade in the next two years as it expands to make room for more students and more children. Governor Janet Mills has proven to be a champion of early childhood education, committing more than $100 million of the state’s budget since March of 2020. A portion of that funding has made the UMF program expansion possible, but it still can’t necessarily change bigger-picture problems, like salary discrepancies, that make teaching the youngest children a hard sell, even for motivated caregivers.

Teaching in general is a lower-paying field, but teachers in charge of children from birth to four years old are paid the lowest of the low, on average making 59 cents less than people who take care of animals and 73 cents more than fast-food workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even among those who work with young children, there are disparities. According to a 2019 episode of Maine Public Radio’s Deep Dive that explored childcare issues in the state, a certified teacher who works with kids between birth and three years old makes $12,000 less annually on average than a teacher who works in a public-school pre-K or kindergarten class.

Brianna Maxim, an early childhood education student at UMF, is earning a certificate that qualifies her to teach children from birth to five years old. She’s one of the people who could help meet the need for childcare providers working with kids aged zero to three at centers such as YFO, but she also has the option to become a teacher at a state-funded preschool or kindergarten. “I want to be that teacher that the kids remember years later,” she says. “I think about the structure, and the goals, and curriculum planning. Public school programs seem a little more structured. But I do like helping kids develop and become their own person, which is what childcare education is all about.”

“Childcare workers were forgotten as essential workers at the beginning of the pandemic. They weren’t recognized alongside the doctors, the nurses, even the restaurant workers who were identified as essential,” says Babson-Haley. “When they were finally recognized, it was as a need for parents and the companies those parents worked for, not as professionals.”

That recognition, however, did result in federally funded hazard pay raises to YFO’s teachers. Those funds have expired, but Babson-Haley says she couldn’t let her employees go back to what they were earning prepandemic—wages that, after the recent historic inflation rates, would create an untenable situation for most.

YFO is currently operating at a significant revenue loss due to salary increases to maintain the hazard pay rates. Those salaries make up 90 percent of YFO’s operating budget. The 18 staff members, most of whom have at least a two-year degree if not a bachelor’s or master’s, have received 40 percent pay increases over the past two years, but Babson-Haley says her organization still can’t compete with companies like Starbucks or Target, which have ramped up wages to $24 or more per hour in an attempt to attract employees. “We cannot pay that, not even to our highest-paid staff,” says Babson-Haley. “So, teachers are leaving us, and why not? Those jobs are easier.”

In Babson-Haley’s ideal world, everybody would care about her workforce. Target should be paying their employees $24 per hour, she says, but they should also be offering childcare vouchers to working parents. “They’re wondering why they can’t find employees, or why they don’t have as many employees who are women? It’s because parents can’t find childcare. This is every employer’s issue, too.”

Babson-Haley says that public funding for birth-to-age-three classrooms would make a big difference for organizations like hers, and for the families she works with. Tuition was raised 18 percent over the past two years, and families are the ones who foot that bill. If YFO were publicly funded, parents could get a break, and Babson-Haley could offer competitive salaries that would help attract highly qualified teachers. With more teachers, she wouldn’t need to sub in the classrooms, and could spend her time expanding programming, including increasing available slots, a precious commodity in any community. And if there are more available spots for kids, more kids will come, and more parents will be available to work. “It’s a completely connected web. And childcare is at the center for working families,” she says.

Babson-Haley is quick to recognize that she is not the first advocate for this cause, noting that thousands have been running against walls trying to get public support for early childhood education almost since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. There have been wins, but not enough wins. During World War II, the first federally funded childcare centers opened to support mothers heading into the workforce, but they closed with the end of the war. “We’ve seen this happen throughout history,” she says. “When times are tough there’s all this focus because it’s needed, but when things start to get better people forget about us.”

If there is going to be lasting change, there needs to be a fresh approach; otherwise, the same brick walls will keep popping up. To push the needle locally, Babson-Haley and her team have dreamed up an improved, expanded program at YFO, one that will help connect the dots for parents and community members, including things like additional classroom space, community education rooms, and affordable housing units for area residents. A successful capital campaign that concluded last March and a partnership with the Portland Housing Authority have brought the $18.35 million project within a few months of breaking ground. The expanded center will not only double YFO’s current capacity for childcare spots—addressing their waiting list of over 100 families—but also provide 60 apartments for income-qualifying families. Babson-Haley believes that the new model’s wrap-around services offer a potential answer for supporting families in need.

Here in Maine, the “oldest” state in the country (with a median age of 44.7 years), where deaths still outnumber births, improved and expanded programs such as the one YFO is working toward would not only lessen the burden for families like the Petersons but make it possible for more young families to choose to grow, or to relocate to Maine. Ironically, according to the Bangor Daily News, Maine was also the only state in the country to get younger between 2020 and 2021, seeing more in-migration during the pandemic than almost all other states. Investing in childcare is a no-brainer in Babson-Haley’s opinion, but it should be a no-brainer for every Maine citizen who wants to see the state become a vibrant, supportive place to live, work, and grow.

How can Maine begin to let its grandparents be grandparents instead of childcare workers? How can it allow parents to have careers they are passionate about? And how can it pull early childhood education teachers up the ladder in terms of both pay scale and respect? With organizations like YFO and UMF leading the charge, it seems possible that the next generation of working Mainers, both parents and teachers, might be able to find the holistic support they so desperately need.

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