Child care shortage defies easy solutions

Wanda Chow, Burnaby NewsLeader

When Carrie Campbell was five months pregnant, she was thinking strollers… everything else she’d need as a new mom.

She was also thinking daycare.

So in November 2009, despite not needing a spot until March 2011, the UniverCity resident put her unborn child on the waitlist at the Simon Fraser University Childcare.

Campbell’s daughter, Sienna, is now 14 months old. She’s still on the waitlist.

By November 2010, Campbell was starting to get concerned she wouldn’t get a spot in time for her return to work in March after her year-long maternity leave. And Sienna’s grandparents live too far away to be a permanent solution.

Campbell had decided she wanted her daughter to attend a group childcare facility, … and set about putting her name on every other waiting list she could find that was on transit routes to and from her job in downtown Vancouver.

She even called a centre downtown near her office.

“I laughed and said, ‘Let me guess, I’m 700th on your list.’ She said, ‘Pretty close, you’re 712.’

Like Campbell, many proactive moms get on waitlists while pregnant or even before conceiving. In response, some centres are starting to require applicants show birth certificates, she said.

By mid-January, she started calling her top five centres weekly for updates. In February, she reluctantly agreed to register Sienna at a centre 40 minutes off her regular commute. Later that day, she got a call offering her a spot at …Children’s Centre …

And it all happened with one week to spare before she returned to work.

This is not an uncommon scenario in the Lower Mainland and across Canada, as new parents scramble to find childcare for their kids so they can continue to work to make ends meet. And while it’s a common problem, there appear to be few easy solutions.

‘A matter of money’

At Burnaby Children’s Centres Society, … waitlists are 80 to 100 names long for each of its age groups, said its administrator… .

Infant spaces are in particularly short supply because there are fewer of them to start with, due to stricter caregiver-to-child ratios, he said….

Sharon Gregson, spokeswoman for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C., agrees.

“If you’re doing it well, there’s no profit in it.”

The only way to make a profit is with high fees, low wages or poor quality, said Gregson, a Vancouver school trustee who works for a non-profit that delivers childcare in East Vancouver.

She noted Australia had a negative experience in recent years when a corporate childcare provider, ABC Learning, achieved a monopoly in some areas of that country before eventually going into receivership.

Gregson said she had an older gentleman approach her once trying to understand the issues, recalling that when he was a boy, he simply went next door to Mrs. Davidson who looked after him.

“I said, ‘Mrs. Davidson’s got her own job now to help pay the rent and the mortgage’ … Times have changed.”

And with the changes has come the current childcare system which is fraught with problems.

According to Gregson, when there is federal government funding, it’s through transfer payments to the provinces which are not required to show how many daycare spaces they create. With group childcares typically charging fees of about $1,200 a month, it costs more than post-secondary education. And the standards of education and training required of staff are often not high enough despite the early childhood years being identified as the most crucial ones for learning and development.

“Why go into a field where wages are $16 to $17 an hour, even after years in the field, with no pension?”

And through it all, no level of government is responsible for planning childcare to ensure there is an adequate supply.

The coalition and the Early Childhood Educators of B.C., hope to change that with a proposal it’s developed to create a province-wide childcare system that would be operated by the public school system and in a similar manner.

Under the proposal, childcare would be accessible, there would be planning done as with schools, staff would be paid more and fees would go down to $10 a day compared to $50 to $60 a day now.

It would be government funded and cost $1.5 billion annually to operate, said Gregson, stressing some of that would be recovered through increased taxes paid by people then able to return to the workforce.

Since last summer, the proposal has been presented to various levels of government and other agencies, garnering interest, Gregson said. “Obviously it wouldn’t happen overnight.”

Stressful waiting

Meantime, parents wait and continue to do what they have to to score a coveted daycare spot.

In Zorana Danilovic’s case, that meant cutting her mat leave short.

When the Burnaby resident was four months pregnant, she had put her name on a waitlist for the childcare centres at the University of B.C. where she works. But the staff told her not to expect a spot until her child was two years old.

Like Campbell, Danilovic, 36, takes transit to her job as a research chemist, which somewhat limited her search after her daughter, Nora, was born….

As much as she’d like to stay home with her daughter, financially, it wouldn’t work for her family.

Danilovic also went on several waitlists and checked in regularly, eventually building a rapport with daycare staff. She then learned that priority is given to parents who ask for an earlier start date. By changing her start date to two months earlier than planned, she managed to grab a spot in March. Even then, she had to wait an agonizing week while daycare staff tried to contact those before her on the list.

Resolving the situation was a huge relief. “I probably couldn’t have slept until May.”…

Danilovic said the current situation is “just ridiculous” considering she and her husband both have reasonably good jobs.

She noted that she grew up in a socialistic country, the former Yugoslavia, where her mom, a doctor, had no trouble dropping her children off at daycare and picking them up afterwards. “You had nothing to worry about.”

When Danilovic came to Canada, she said she expected the system to be even better.

Instead, she was put through the wringer of anxiety for months.

If she hadn’t found a childcare space, “I think it would be very, very stressful … I would probably be home unemployed with my daughter.”