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Vicki Bouvier and her son Bradon racing down a slide. Bradon won this race. Vicki is a student at the U of C and said it was difficult to find quality daycare.
Aly Gulamhusein/the Gauntlet

Safe, affordable daycare hard to find

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Exams and essays are hard for all students, but for student parents who have to juggle the responsibility of school, as well as caring for children, all on a student budget, the balance can be too difficult.

Third year indigenous studies student Vivienne Livingstone has three children. The youngest is 18-month-old Isabella. Isabella has been on the University of Calgary Child Care Centre wait list since before she was born.

"Although places have come up, they have been totally random and in the middle of semester," said Livingstone.

Since then, Livingstone has decided that daycare is not for her family, even if that means putting off her degree for a few more years.

"I decided to stay in school and do one class a semester," she said.

Vicki Bouvier is the mother of 6-year-old Bradon.

"Affording good quality daycare is a struggle," said Bouvier.

It is often a compromise between affordability and quality, she said. "You are constantly wondering is he safe, is he really getting as a child what he needs to fully develop into his potential."

Livingstone said affordable daycares she has looked at were not up to her standards for quality.

University of Calgary sociologist Tom Langford warns of the great inequality of care in Alberta in his book Alberta's Day Care Controversy.

"Families with money can afford top of the line childcare. For middle income families and low income families, because the subsidy the government provides isn't enough, they are forced to look at the lower cost childcare options," he said.

Langford noted these lower cost options meet only the minimum licensing standards.

Accreditation

In 2005, Alberta started an accreditation program that allowed childcare centres to voluntarily apply for accreditation, allowing them to demonstrate they are exceeding licensing standards.

"Accreditation focuses on quality from a different perspective than licensing," said senior manager of the Alberta government childcare branch Leanne Wagner.

Licensing looks at equipment safety, staff-to-child ratio, and amount of floor space.

Accreditation, according to Wagner, looks at quality from a different perspective. "It takes a look at how staff talk to children, what kind of programming does staff offer to children, are they intentional about helping children grow, learn and experience themselves in the world?"

Professor Langford said this is a step in the right direction.

"Accreditation has been a tremendous positive change in Alberta childcare," he said.

However, he does not think the program should be voluntary, but mandatory for all childcare centres.

Wagner assured the Gauntlet that "whether [families] are high income, low income, subsidized, or not, we are monitoring those programs to ensure they are safe for children."

All childcare centres that have over six children require a license from the Alberta government.

"Those programs receive regular unannounced inspection to ensure that they are complying with the legislation, and if not we take enforcement action," said Wagner. Approximately 85 per cent of daycare programs participate in the accreditation program. Wagner does not think the accreditation program needs to be mandatory. "Making it mandatory, when almost everyone is participating, is a hard business case to make."

Accreditated childcare centres gain incentives such as wage top ups for employees and increased operating grants.

However, day homes with under six children do not need government licensing to run.

Langford calls these "buyer beware situations."

"Middle and lower income families are very price sensitive. They are often looking for the lower cost alternatives such as unregulated family day homes," said Langford. "It is not that parents are being neglectful, it is just an economic fact."

Student parent Livingstone agrees that day homes tend to be more affordable, but the government subsidy cannot be used if a child is cared for in an unlicensed day home.

Bouvier said she is wary of unaccredited programs because "you don't know their qualifications and may not be there for the right reasons."

In order to ensure quality childcare for all, regardless of income, Langford suggest a 75 per cent increase of funds and subsidies from the government.

"That would be a really great investment in young children. Early childhood investment will get kids going in the right direction, get kids the skills they need to be successful later in school and in the workforce," said Langford.

Research by University of Chicago professor James Heckman in 2006 shows investing in early childhood development provides an economic payoff to society and preventative programs do not have to be implemented later on in life.

Deregulation

In 2007, Alberta passed a policy that deregulated the size of childcare centres across Alberta. Previously the province had a cap at 80 children, but due to increased demand it was decided deregulation would better serve Alberta residents.

Wagner said the Alberta government was interested in supporting space creation during this change.

"In Alberta we conducted consultations to see where we were experiencing challenges around space creation and it was identified that the cap was a barrier to creating more space and better accessibility for families."

Wagner said it was removed based on that feedback.

Langford warns that these large daycare corporations may not have the interest of the children at heart.

"They expect to make a bunch of money out of providing childcare and there is always that pressure to make sure the return on investment is good and sometimes what that means is they cut corners and they don't do as good of job as they should in terms of looking after kids," said Langford.

He said the risk of bankruptcy for these large chains has the ability to bring chaos into family's and children's lives. He cited two chains that went bankrupt in Calgary in the 1990s-- Kindercare in 1994 and Educentres in 1996.

"The economy was low and the demand for daycare was decreased. Government reduced the amount of money provided to childcare for their operating allowances and the larger daycares could not meet their costs," said Langford.

Wagner said that it is the parents' choice to put their children in a centre suitable to the child's and family's needs.

"Our concern is to make sure, regardless of the size of the program, that they comply to the legislature standards and we offer funding to ensure programs improve their quality.

Subsidy is available for parents if needed. But Bouvier said that subsidy is not enough.

The subsidy for children 19 months to five years is $546 a month if the child is in daycare or out of school care. It is $628 a month for infants.

According to a 2009 Vibrant Communities Calgary Cost of Living Fact Sheet, the average cost is $996 a month for an infant at daycare. Parents are required to pay the difference.

"You have to incur a loan to put your child in daycare," said Bouvier. "Sometimes, especially here at the university, it is extremely expensive."

Livingstone agrees fees at the University of Calgary Child Care Centre are steep.

The Centre charges $1250 a month for infants.

"When you find quality care there is a waitlist," said Livingstone. "You are kind of forced to look elsewhere and take a cut in quality so you don't have to wait."

Bouvier said finding quality childcare is hard.

"If you are not educated to know what to look for you will put your child in anything," she said. "I was fortunate to find a good, accredited, fairly reasonable rated daycare but I have some [people] tell me that their daycare is not good, but it is all they can afford."

Livingstone found that having a babysitter come to her home to take care of her daughter when she's in class worked best for her.

However, funding is still a struggle.

"My funding came in a week before the end of the semester. I had to pay my babysitter out of my food money and I ended having to go to the food bank," said Livingstone.

Wagner suggested student parents with financial need contact their local authority office to apply for a subsidy.

"Low and middle income parents would love to put their children into the best childcare available but they can't afford to," said Langford. "They are forced to put their children into lower cost options. Sometimes the care is adequate, but sometimes not."

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