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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mariam Stott gives kids squirts of water while they ride bikes at the Neighborhood House Day Care Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 13, 2011. (Photo/Laura Seitz)Day Care Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 13, 2011. (Photo/Laura Seitz)

SALT LAKE CITY — When Kelsie Dilley started looking for day care for her nephews, she didn't have to look far to find her best option.

A teacher at the Neighborhood House, Dilley knew it would be hard to find another child care provider with a sliding fees scale and many of the other qualities the Neighborhood House possesses.

"I love the atmosphere. I love the support they give me," she said. "I love their mission statement. I love that they help low-income families."

Even the lowest-cost child care providers have seen a decline in business the past two to three years, and many believe it's a result of the economic recession which has hit low-income families particularly hard. In the last three years, the number of child care providers in Utah dropped from 1,539 to 1,285. The actual number of children in child care has also decreased, said Marci McDaniel, data specialist at Utah's Child Care Resource and Referral office.

The Neighborhood House, one of few nonprofit child care programs in Salt Lake geared toward the working poor, has been around for 117 years. The oldest day care in Utah, it was started by Emma McVicker, a former Presbyterian schoolteacher, in 1894 as a kindergarten for children of the working poor. Back then it was known as the Free Kindergarten Association.

"It fills a huge gap in services because people who wouldn't be able to afford day care come (here)," said Jennifer Nuttall, development director for the House. "The majority of our clients earn under $18,000 a year, so meeting even the most basic needs is hard. How do they afford to put their kids somewhere where they know their kids are safe?"

These families, whether single-parent or two-parent, need places to send their children when the parents are either working, going to school or doing both in order to improve their family's living situation. Utah's Office of Child Care helps families in this situation subsidize their child care costs, but the $3.5 million state funding was cut in 2008, making the situation even more difficult.

The Neighborhood House's sliding fees scale makes it a unique organization. Based on clients' income, the scale allows for families that make very little money to pay less than families that make more money.

With the scale, families are billed anywhere from $5.50 to $18.50 a day over a 21-day period, adding up to between $115 and $388.50. Most Neighborhood House clients can afford to pay at the halfway mark.

"The majority of our families are definitely coming here because of the economic assistance," said Jacob Brace, director of the Neighborhood House.

Julye Pappadakis and her sister own a facility with a similar mission, called Destinations Children's Center, which has one location in Cottonwood Heights and one on Redwood Road. They try to keep their rates low, especially compared to other programs in the area. At the Cottonwood Heights center, the rate is $170 a week for infants year-round, $135 a week for school-aged children during the summer and $80 a week during the school year when kids only come to the center before and after school.

Though these prices and those at the Neighborhood House are below the average state child care costs (which range from $651 a week for infants and toddlers to $531 a week for school-aged children), both Destinations centers and the Neighborhood House have seen a drop in their numbers in recent years. The Destinations center has been running below its capacity of 150 kids at one center and 74 at the other, while the Neighborhood House hasn't been able to fill all 267 of its slots.

"We haven't been full the last couple years with the economy," Pappadakis said. "Families lose jobs. If they don't have a job, they can't bring their kids to child care."

Fifty percent of families at the Cottonwood Heights center receive subsidies from Utah's Office of Child Care, and that percentage is even higher at the Redwood Road location, but they have even had a hard time retaining those families as clients.

Despite the economy, many working poor parents continue to bring their children to day care, said Lynette Rasmussen, director of the Office of Child Care (OCC), which helps subsidize child care for families in need to the tune of $42 million a year, an amount that comes from the federal government. Utah typically spends all of that money during the fiscal year, giving grants to providers to improve the quality of their programs and subsidizing child care costs for families.

When the OCC provides subsidies for families, the amount of money it supplies depends on the income and size of the family, but it only pays a portion of the cost, requiring the family to contribute what they can afford.

Requirements concerning the employment and/or enrollment in school for parents determine eligibility, but qualifying families can choose any child care provider they prefer, as long as it is licensed or license exempt.

There is not much Rasmussen or others at the OCC can do to increase funding, but they are working to increase the quality of child care in Utah with a program called Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS), used by states to rate providers the way restaurants are. The OCC has tweaked it to better fit the industry in Utah.

There will be a website that parents looking for child care options can visit to learn about a specific program and see how they fare on the QRIS rating scale.

Providers will be able to post pictures, client testimonials, license history, information about their health and safety, teacher training, outdoor environment and any other criteria pertinent to advertising their quality as a provider.

"It helps quantify the choice," Rasmussen said. "I think it'll increase quality. It's self-correcting. Providers will want to improve the quality of their own program. They want to provide the best care they can, and the parent is going to want to pick the best one."

Michelle Scholl, director of Montessori Building Blocks, considers her program more of a private school with a capacity of 47 children, although lately the program has only been two-thirds full.

The grants the Office of Child Care gives to providers helps them improve their playgrounds, indoor environment and teacher training. Palmer and Pappadakis believe those grants are helping increase high-quality child care throughout the state.

For the Neighborhood House, Destinations Children's Center and other providers whose costs are below the state average — and even others whose costs are average or above average — cutting their prices could put them out of business. Still, families remain who cannot afford the services.

"We're not in it to make money. It's not a business that you make money in," Pappadakis said. "We put all the money we can back into the centers."

It's the same at the Neighborhood House, Destinations, ABC Pre School and many others. Their costs are based on classroom supplies, food, staff, interior environment and playground equipment, and if they lower their rates, those needs suffer.

Pappadakis, Palmer and others believe that many in Utah don't realize that many families who are living below the poverty line need child care so they can work.

"I'd suggest it's because of the economic choice of 'Do I want to put food on the table or put my loved one in a care program?' Unfortunately, it's not a choice we would wish on anybody," Brace said. "I understand those needs, but I get really concerned for kids who get pulled out of preschool settings. Are we still reading to them, giving them access to books and a chance to learn on every occasion?"

Email: rcampbell@desnews.com