Torrington forum discusses solutions to childcare challenges

Back • Publication Date: October 17, 2023 • Education & Employment

TORRINGTON — Affordable childcare for all. It’s a popular phrase. But the answers to this growing challenge for families nationwide continue to elude lawmakers and prompted Gov. Ned Lamont to seek a real solution.In March, Lamont authorized Beth Bye, commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood, to create and lead the Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Care. The panel is charged with “developing a five-year strategic plan for a child care system that works for families, providers, and Connecticut’s economy,” according to the OEC website.

On Oct. 10, more than 60 men and women involved in agencies and providers of family services gathered at KidsPlay Children’s Museum to discuss solutions to the childcare crisis.

Bye said the average cost of childcare in Connecticut is close to $23,000 a year, making it unaffordable for many state residents.

“During the pandemic, childcare was critical and helped keep the state open,” Bye said. “We called them first responders. Then the state developed a workforce shortage, and people started saying childcare was an issue of concern.”

Bye was joined at the Oct 10 session by state representatives Michelle Cook, D-Torrington; Maria Horn, D-Salisbury; Robin Comey, D-Branford; and Kate Ferrar, D-West Hartford; and representatives from Social Venture Partners, a Westport-based nonprofit.

Cook, who co-chairs the Early Childhood Caucus, a nonpartisan group that discusses childcare needs with advocates, other legislators and educators, said the situation is dire.

“I worked in preschool before I was elected to the legislature, and I know it’s not easy. It’s a respected job, but not a well-paid job,” she said. “So, people don’t stay, or they work two other jobs just to make ends meet.

“Childcare shouldn’t be mandatory, but if you need it so you can go to work, we should have it available to people,” Cook said. “We also need quality care, with people paid appropriately.”

Bye pointed out that Cook wanted the panel to hear people in the northwest corner of the state, which was why the commissioner chose to hold a listening session in Torrington.

“I said I can’t support the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations unless our neck of the woods is heard,” Cook said. “If I live in or near one of our cities, maybe I’ll find 10 childcare centers. But in the corner, it’s not like that. It’s vitally important that our voices be heard.”

Often, working parents depend on family members to watch their children. Bye said programs can assist those caregivers.

Ava Bermudez, president of Child Care for Connecticut, often works with families that rely on grandparents, aunts or other relatives to care for their children. Members of her group sponsored the Oct. 10 event and provided Spanish translation, food and refreshments.

Family childcare providers are not certified, but they are doing a lot of the same things that a daycare does,” she said. “There are not a lot of resources for this group. It’s a solitary path.”

She said places like KidsPlay, which welcomes families with pre-K children and provides them with opportunities for learning enrichment,  are essential. “It’s a resource,” she said. “That’s why it’s here.”

Bermudez said the forum and the Blue Ribbon Panel were a start, but much more needs to be done. “I’m glad (the forum was held) in this part of the state,” she said. “There are many families here who need affordable childcare.”

Emily Byrne, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children, said Torrigton’s session was one of several she’s sat, listened and participated in. Her agency, she said, is focused on economic justice through policy and system changes.

“High-quality early child education and care are the building blocks for lifelong success,” Byrne said. “The economic question regarding affordable childcare is more recent and pushed along by the pandemic. Many more people now understand that early childcare is more than important; it’s essential infrastructure. It helps our workers.”

When Lamont authorized Bye to create and lead the Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Care, he acknowledged a shortage of childcare professionals, noting they are among the lowest-paid workers in the state.

“A strong childcare system produces a stronger state, stronger economy, and better place to live for everyone,” he said. “Our goal is to develop an equitable, high-quality, and sustainable childcare system that ensures that every child has a quality educational foundation that will prepare them to grow, learn, and succeed.”

Existing providers are part of the panel’s charge as well, Bye said. “We don’t want to push out the existing workforce.”

She also said the panel could adopt a three-step career plan to give more students an opportunity to learn about childcare jobs while they are in high school.

Equitable, high-quality childcare for all model is a tall order. Still, Bye is confident that her 30 or more listening sessions have provided insight into how to craft and pay for it. One strategy is a cost-sharing program, where the state, businesses and families would contribute to the cost, easing the burden on the family.

Bye said one of the most vocal groups speaking on accessibility is parents with disabled children. “They need more programs; they are only part of what’s needed for these children,” she said.

Authors: Emily M. Olson •  Source: The Register Citizen • View