A timely outreach campaign focused on infant care statewide lands in Aspen this week.
Senate Bill 63, passed during the Colorado legislative session this spring, mandates the creation of a strategic action plan focused on infant childcare and in-home childcare businesses.
According to the state’s Office of Early Childhood, an average of 200 family childcare homes have closed every year since 2010. “And because infant childcare is more often provided in family child care homes than in child care centers, the decline of family child care homes has resulted in over 7,300 fewer infant slots in the state,” says an informational memo provided by the state office.
Childcare agencies statewide are tasked with holding public sessions to collect information on specific barriers to infant care, as well as brainstorm solutions. The feedback from the listening sessions is due back Sept. 16, and the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission must complete the strategic plan by Dec. 1.
The city of Aspen’s Kids First office is hosting the meeting on Thursday at the Pitkin County Library from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Executive Director Shirley Ritter said she hopes a wide range of the public will attend, including new and expecting parents, elected officials and employers.
Attendees will be able to brainstorm and prioritize initiatives to address infant care needs, or make it easier to create homecare facilities. They will be tasked with sorting out solutions into ones that are most readily resolved, have the greatest impact, or have locals who are willing to personally advocate for the proposed action. All of the feedback will be passed along to the state.
“They want to get at what is going on and how can we build this back up, how can we provide incentives or support new development,” Ritter said.
She said part of the outreach is to find out why there has been such a dramatic decline in licenced infant care.
“There’s some theories about why that is going on. Certainly it’s not the easiest thing to do,” she said of running a childcare facility.
There are legal requirements including square footage and adult-to-infant ratios that homecare providers have to follow. Ritter said locally she has also seen homeowners associations protest homecare facilities with concerns about extra traffic or operating businesses out of affordable housing units.
Colorado is among a handful of states where the cost of infant care surpasses that of rent and of in-state college tuition. Statewide, a year of infant care averages $13,000 annually. In the Roaring Fork Valley the average is $17,000, according to Ritter.
But cost is not the only limiting factor. Pitkin County has a total of 30 licenced spots for infants, generally classified as babies less than one year old. In 2017 county residents gave birth to 134 babies.
“There are long waitlists that are really so long that you are not going to get in while that baby is still an infant,” Ritter said.
The state listening session comes just weeks after Ritter and her board went in front of Aspen City Council to present temporary options for creating more space for infant care. The council rejected all options given, which they felt displaced or degraded existing childcare programs for older children.
“They weren’t the greatest solutions, but they were something that was going to work in the short term for people who have babies now,” Ritter said. “They are the ones that are really in a crisis.”
Ritter said she often fields calls from new parents who need to return to work but have no options for childcare.
“I’ve heard people say, if I can't go back to work, I don't know how much longer we can live here, we might have to move,” she said.
Without available childcare, workforce turnover grows, which has an impact beyond just residents with children.
“We give up those people and they leave this community. So not only does this workforce suffer, but I think that whole meaning of having a diverse thriving community, I think that begins to suffer too,” Ritter said.
Since the presentation to council, Ritter said she has been fielding phone calls from people who have other suggestions for temporary infant care space. But nothing has come through yet that would qualify as a licenced facility.
“I hate to be the Debbie Downer here but you've got to have so much space, you’ve got to have outdoor space, you've got to have ground level,” she said.
The meeting Thursday begins at 11:30 a.m. in the community room at the Pitkin County LIbrary. Ritter encourages the public to RSVP because lunch is provided. While the feedback will be compiled for the state strategic plan, she hopes the information will help with the fast tracking for local options as well.
“I would love to have better solutions,” Ritter said. “I would love to have the whole community involved.”