Gwen Bennett gets emotional as she thinks about the frantic parents she’s had to regrettably turn down in their search for childcare.
“It is extremely difficult,” says Bennett, manager of Caris Infant and Toddler Centre, of the situation facing Campbell River families with very young children. Some have no choice but to have both parents return to work shortly after the birth of their child and they’re desperate for someone they can rely on to care for their baby.
“They’re just living and they’re trying to put food on the table,” Bennett says. “Parents are having to make really tough choices.”
More and more, it seems parents are making the decision to either rejoin or enter the workforce to make ends meets. Which is putting pressure on the limited resources available locally for parents of infants and toddlers. Caris and Forest Circle, which are located on the grounds of Carihi and Timberline highschools, respectively, are the only two licensed group childcare centres with infant programs open to the general public. For toddlers, there are only four or five childcare centres, as well as a few First Nations that have their own programs.
Because there are so few options, the spots that do become available tend to fill up quickly. At Caris, there are only 12 infant spots and at Forest Circle there are just eight. That’s because it’s more expensive to run those programs than it is to provide care for children over the age of 3.
The ratio required is higher than with older children, with licensing requiring one caregiver for every four children and groups no larger than 12.
It’s also more difficult to recruit staff for infant rooms as they have to have specialized infant toddler education, on top of their Early Childhood Education schooling.
It all adds up to a severe shortage of daycare spots for society’s youngest and most vulnerable.
“I’ve been adding to my wait list constantly, pretty well on a daily basis recently,” Bennett says. “In the last three to five years, the demand has been huge. Now we’re basically at capacity all the time.”
There are currently 75 children on the Caris wait list, with one dating back as far as 2015. And there are families on the list already for 2018.
Bennett says the struggle to find childcare can be attributed to a few factors. She’s seen new families moving to town and she also sees the struggle and the crunch parents are facing.
“Part of it could be the cost of living,” Bennett says. “Families have no alternative but to have both parents going to work.”
The part that breaks her heart is when she has to turn away hard-working parents, who often come from low-income backgrounds, because she can’t possibly accommodate them.
“As a human being, it’s an awful situation,” Bennett says. “You feel like you’re playing God with people’s lives. It’s a terrible feeling to have people in tears on the other end of the line. It’s very disconcerting to hear people’s needs and not be able to help.”
Bennett says if she can’t provide a space, she’ll refer the caregiver to Pacific Care, a resource and referral service.
But the problem facing Campbell River parents is two-fold. It’s not only a struggle to find a childcare spot, but it’s a whole other challenge trying to afford the ones that are available. Particularly when it comes to infant and toddler care.
A 2014 Campbell River State of the Child Report says that “an average family with two children in childcare under the age of five in Campbell River can pay upwards of $1,750 a month” and Bennett suspects costs have risen even further since then.
The struggle is that a provincial childcare subsidy program has frozen its rates since 2004, Bennett says, while daycare fees are rising. At Caris, “monthly fees are more than the subsidy for parents in the Young Parents Program so we are in fact subsidizing the childcare fees from our society.”
Locally, the Young Parents Program is only available at Caris and was implemented at the time of the centre’s inception in January of 1992 thanks to the assistant superintendent of special services at the time and the Rotary Club which embraced the idea.
The program subsidizes childcare for young parents based on their income (many who use Caris are high school students) and it is a multi-agency collaboration which focuses on childcare, education, health and support. To that end, Caris provides the parents who are in the program with diapers and the centre also provides a hot lunch and two snacks each day to every single child, regardless of whether or not they are in the Young Parents Program.
“We do everything we can,” Bennett says.
But despite the cost, the struggle and the tough situations she’s put in, Bennett says working at an infant centre is extremely rewarding.
“There are a lot of perks to having an infant room,” Bennett says. “Everyday I have a little boy who gives me a hug as he’s on his way into the room.
“You can’t put a price on that.”