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Where can child care go?

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Ellie Taylor holds 10-month old Emma outside of their home, where she runs the Nature Nursery School at Hollyhock Cottage. Increasing the capacity of in-home child care is being explored by state and local governments as a way to ease the infant care shortage statewide. 

Since 2010, nearly 200 child care facilities a year have closed throughout Colorado. This translates to 7,300 fewer infant care spots during that time. Pitkin County’s total licensed child care options for infants is 30 spots, well under the 187 babies born at Aspen Valley Hospital in 2018.

No one is more accurately aware of the shortage of child care options than the valley’s expecting mothers. Ashley Allis is expecting her first child in October, a couple days shy of her one-year wedding anniversary.

“We both wanted a family and wanted to start right away,” Allis said.

Allis has lived in the valley for 13 years and she knew, anecdotally, that child care was scarce, but the stress of finding a spot didn’t outweigh the joy of starting a family.

“That was the main factor above everything else, we want a child. We are excited for the child,” Allis said.

For months she’s been calling child care facilities and getting her name on wait lists, with the hope that something will open up around the time her maternity leave is up.

“I have gotten on every list I can find,” she said.

It’s a time intensive process that includes leaving lots of voicemails, follow-up emails and research. She said everyone she’s talked to has been gracious, and even invited her in to tour the ­facilities, but for now spending extra time on visits isn’t worth it, because the likelihood that her daughter will be accepted is so slim.

“There is so much uncertainty and time commitment in touring places that will not accept me in the end anyways,” Allis said.

Local infant care facilities have wait lists a year long — meaning that by the time your number gets picked, you no longer are the parent of an infant. For Aspen’s most sought after facilities, like the programs within the city-owned Yellow Brick building, residents need extensive foresight to score a spot.

“I am aware of people who are on lists who have not conceived yet,” Allis said.

The demand puts families in a tough spot, struggling to be in the mix for child care among all the other factors that come with learning that they are pregnant.

“I hadn’t told family yet and felt like I was already behind,” Allis recalls.

Last month, Aspen City Council rejected three proposed temporary options to expand the capacity of infant care at the Yellow Brick. Instead, they sent the Kids First department back to the drawing board to brainstorm other fixes to the growing problem.

Stefan Reveal is the co-chair of the Kids First board, and also serves as the president of the master homeowners association committee at Burlingame Ranch. The three-phase affordable housing development contains two potential buildings that could house a day care facility that city council has its eye on as a way to increase capacity. A commons area built in the first phase of the development had approvals to be zoned for a child care facility, but was never built out as such. Reveal said the building itself isn’t the only issue.

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The community building built during the first phase of the Burlingame Ranch housing development was permitted for child care but issues with parking and outdoor safety make it untenable as it currently sits.

“They definitely failed in the area of realizing a day care facility needs its own parking area,” he said.

The pick-up and drop-off times would coincide with residents coming in and out of the neighborhood. Additionally, he said, there is no parking for positions like child care providers, a director or a cleaning staff. These are all issues that need to come into account for the next and final phase of Burlingame, plans for which also include a building with permit approvals to become a child care facility.

He and the Kids First team speak of a “three-legged-stool” approach to child care the city should strive to provide.

“You need to not only have capacity, you also need to have it at a certain price that is livable, but also you [have to have] quality in there,” Reveal said.

The Aspen Fire Protection District also has a new housing development in the works at its North Forty station near the Aspen Airport Business Center. Included in early schematics is a building that adheres to codes regulating child care facilities, so that it may too become a potential new day care in the valley. Fire Chief Rick Balentine said he sees within his own staff what a difference increased child care capacity could make, and how it could help the community at large.

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The Aspen Fire Protection District is in the preliminary phase of building new housing next to its North Forty fire station near the Aspen Airport Business Center. The schematics include a building that could be used as a child care facility. 

“It would not only benefit our volunteers and staff but also many others that are experiencing the same problems we are having within our ranks, by hopefully opening up spots at other facilities that could also be helpful in relieving some of the pressure off others that may also be in desperate need of day care options,” Balentine said.

Finding space for day care is only one aspect of solving the valley’s child care crisis, however. Staffing the centers is difficult, especially with quality providers who are able to address all aspects of early life.

“All the studies that are out there now are talking about how educating your children in being smart in social-emotional development is hugely important,” Reveal said.

There are 15 infant care facilities within 30 miles of Aspen, spanning the range of the one-through-five quality scale assigned by the state. Ratings are determined by points given in categories such as the child care providers’ qualifications, how families are engaged, group size, and the educational curriculum.

Facilities rated one or two are monitored by the state’s Division of Early Care and Learning. The Colorado Shines program oversees the higher rating classes. The Colorado Shines website acknowledges that parents have to take into account cost and location when choosing child care facilities, but encourages families to prioritize safety and quality above all else.

“The early years of life are very important for all areas of children’s learning and development,” states the Colorado Shines website. “That’s because the human brain develops faster during the first five years than at any other time in a person’s life.”

But in a community of year-long wait lists, parents don’t always have the luxury of evaluating their child’s care based on price or quality. It only comes down to availability.

“I don’t get to have any discretion in this process,” said Allis. “We don’t necessarily get to pick a facility based on our own philosophies, based on the environment of that facility, based on the convenience or location or cost. We have to hope somebody picks us.”

Only the invested, passionate and organized need apply

Both the Burlingame location and the AFPD development are years away from completion. In the short term, city council suggested seeking out ways to increase private sector in-home infant care in the valley.

“It was the primary solution that was delivered short term from city council,” Reveal said. “Why are there not [more]? Why is that not coming up?”

The state of Colorado has the same question. The staggering year-over-year decreases in capacity statewide has the legislature wondering if there are things that can be done on a policy level that would reverse that trend.

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Ten-month-old Emma plays in the Nature Nursery School at Hollyhock Cottage, an in-home child care facility run by her mother, Ellie Taylor.

In the session that wrapped up earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill funding a directive to collect feedback from the public. The committee is interested in what restrictions the state could roll back, or incentives it could ­provide, that would encourage more in-home care.

“Early childhood is such an incredibly important time for kids and it makes a huge impact on children as they grow,” said Julia Anderson, the early care and learning communications specialist with the Office of Early Childhood.

Rebecca Romeyn is the child care program manager for the Garfield County Department of Human Services. She oversees the licensing of all in-home child care providers and facilities in the valley. When someone inquires about starting a new facility, she tells them to first check their underlying zoning requirements, and any homeowners association documents that would prevent a home from being used as a day care. In Aspen, much of the city is zoned in a way that would allow a child care facility, or could potentially allow a facility upon a conditional use permit.

Romeyn next sends applicants to review the three separate sections of state statute that regulate in-home care facilities. One license is given for the combination of the provider and the location. The property must be the provider’s primary residence, which excludes those who have a suitable space but don’t want to be a child care provider, or those who wish to run a facility but don’t live in accommodations that fit regulations.

Facilities are required to have 35 square feet per child indoors, and 75 square feet per child outdoors, preferably in a fenced-in area, with no trampolines allowed.

Everyone living in the home needs to pass a health inspection and a background check. Providers need to obtain training in CPR, child growth and development, and spotting signs of child abuse. The state regulations touch on basics like diaper-changing stations, how to greet children when they arrive (be ­friendly) and the minimum amount of books that must be on the premises (four). The also regulate the handling of paintball outings, lockdown drills, and the frequency of snack times. Providers must keep three years of records of the daily sign-in and sign-out times of each child.

Romeyn said it takes a special person to get all of their ducks in a row to obtain the license, let alone do the work of caring for young children day in and day out.

“It takes someone who is very invested and passionate, and has a vision of what they want to provide for children, and is organized,” she said.

In her decades in the field, Romeyn said she has seen the larger trend of decreased child care capacity play out in the valley. Oftentimes a facility will close because the living situation of the provider will change. The valley has a transient population due to a large number of factors. Renters are at the mercy of their landlords, family dynamics change, the economy goes up and down.

“There’s a lot of movement in the valley, and the license is attached to the address,” she said.

As child care facilities close, or more people choose to get out of the field, the ripple effect grows from the infants, to the families, to the community at large. Romeyn encourages solutions that consider more support for the in-home care providers.

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Preliminary schematics of a new housing development behind the North Forty fire station at the Aspen Airport Business Center account for a child care facility.

“Being in the field for over 30 years, I think it’s one of the most important professions in the world. It’s a gift to the children and families to have a safe and nurturing environment for kiddos when they are not in the care of their own families. That’s important to the community as a whole and how we function as a community. We need to nurture our little ones but we also need to nurture those who nurture our little ones and understand what a gift they are to our community,” she said.

Progressive paternity policy could quell demand

Ellie Taylor runs The Nature Nursery School at Hollyhock Cottage, an in-home care facility in Emma. Unlike other countries where being a child care provider is a respected position, in America it doesn’t bring in the same regard, or salary, she said.

“In the U.S., it’s a low-paid uneducated position. ... We just don’t value early childhood education, which is astounding.”

According to her home size and her license, she is allowed to take six children into her program at any one time. Only two of those clients can be under 2, and that includes her own new baby girl.

Taylor is one of those ultra-organized caregivers that Romeyn looks for. She keeps her health records up to date, her home child-proofed, and her environmental hazards notices posted by the front door

“It’s a pain to go through, but I think it creates a standard of care,” Taylor said.

Her midvalley housing situation lends itself perfectly to the type of programing she wants to do — integrating an appreciation for nature into daily life. She gets calls for full-day child care all the time, but she is only open two mornings a week. Each educational day includes a stop by the garden, the stream, and the apple trees. She’s been operating since 2015, and has seen an increase in the number of requirements to gain a license from the state.

“When I started it wasn’t as involved,” Taylor said. “I’m not upset about having to do it, but it was easier than it is now. If I had seen the full list of what it is now, I don’t know if I would have done it.”

Taylor loves the work that she does, but she says ultimately, she thinks the best thing for babies and families is extended time with the parents. She said early childhood years are crucial to determining the health and happiness of a child.

“If the baby is around this loving dedicated primary caregiver, those needs are automatically met,” Taylor said. “It’s not like you have to have some program, it’s just a matter of having this loving attention given to your baby, especially in that first year. And who better to give loving undivided attention than the mama?”

Before she had her baby, Taylor served on the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board. It’s a volunteer citizen board that oversees the voter-approved funds that come in from a sales tax, specifically to help area rivers.

“My thought was, mamas and babies should be together that whole first year,” Taylor said. “Aspen is so progressive — we were the first town to be completely renewable in 2015 — could we be the first town to have a mandatory one-year maternity leave? And could a voter-approved fund like this be a way to go, where we could offer grants to local families?”

Shirley Ritter is the executive director of Kids First. It’s a city department that has its own earmarked fund supplied by a dedicated sales tax. A portion of the fund provides grants to families that need help offsetting tuition for child care. The Early Childhood Learning Center that operates out of the Yellow Brick charges $1,575 a month for five days a week of care. But offsetting tuition is unnecessary if there is no availability.

Even as she works with her board to identify and create new child care spaces, she, like Taylor, points to the bigger community picture of parental leave.

“If mom and dad each had 12 weeks, you could get six months. You could cut that need for infant care right in half,” Ritter said.

Even with new facilities being built over the next few years, Aspen will still have a deficit in infant care capacity. But, combined with efforts from the state, child care providers and employers, the community is working on better solutions to settle infant care on that three legged stool of quality, capacity and affordability.

“I still remember this one mama, she was literally holding tears back on the phone. She said, ‘I have to go back to work and the baby is 12 weeks old,” Taylor said. “That just doesn’t seem right that a mama would have to leave her baby at 12 weeks old. I think it’s good for mamas and babies to be together for a full year, and I think Aspen is really the place to start this.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.