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Third in a series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.
Why care? A severe shortage of quality child care slots — and parents confused about where to turn for information — puts some families at risk. It also adds to workforce shortages as parents scramble to find affordable care.
Kamesha Jones can see the finish line. The youngest of her three children, Kyree, is enrolled in the Wonder Years early childhood program through Springfield Public Schools for the upcoming school year, meaning she will be done navigating Springfield’s child care maze.
Kyree will leave behind his day care program at the Developmental Center of the Ozarks and take his final big step toward kindergarten.
The day care was incredible on its own, Jones said, but more so because it allowed her to move past an impossible situation with no right answer — one emblematic of the early child care crisis in Springfield.
Many parents like Jones face a cluster of problems when they need to return to work: a shortage of slots at licensed child care centers, unaffordable day cares, and confusion on where and how to find help. The dilemma leads many parents to make desperate choices as they get down to the wire, accepting potentially risky care options for their children.
Before Kyree got off the waiting list, he was enrolled at a child care center that Jones said she cannot name, because the two sides came to a legal agreement after an incident involving her son.
“I dropped him off fine, and I picked him up and he was limping,” she said. He was almost 2. The next day, his leg was swollen and she took him to two emergency rooms after the diagnosis at the first was that her son had arthritis. At the second, staff referred her to an orthopedist and she lined up an appointment.
“They did an X-ray and the orthopedic doctor’s like, ‘Oh, the break’s right here,’” Jones said. “And it wasn’t just a hairline. It was a pretty good break.”
It had mostly healed by the time of the examination, Jones said, and Kyree was able to leave without a cast. Then his mom was forced to make a decision.
Where should her child go?
This series is published in coordination with KY3 News. Watch the evening newscasts all this week on the Ozarks CW and KY3 News, or go to their website for related coverage.
She said the center staff disputed that Kyree broke his leg under their supervision.
“I spoke my mind to them,” she said.
She put her son on the waiting list for the Developmental Center of the Ozarks. Then she faced her options.
“It was either quit my job and take off and not be able to feed my kids and pay my bills, or to keep my son where I did not want him (in order) to be able to still provide for my kids,” she said.
She took him back to the center where she believed his leg was broken.
“Because I was a single mom at that time,” Jones said. “I didn’t have the connections to be able to take him out of day care. I had to keep him in day care that I didn’t trust … to be able to still survive.”
Recent day care death highlights safety issues, risks
In Jones’ situation, she had to leave her child at a day care that she wasn’t comfortable with because she believed she had no other options. Likewise, many parents and expectant parents in Springfield and Greene County — lacking a single referral resource — are forced to trust day care or sitters that they really don’t know much about.
One tragic example: In March, an 8-month-old baby died while at the home of an unlicensed provider in Springfield. The baby was placed in his car seat and left unsupervised for about 12 minutes, police say. The medical examiner believes the baby died of asphyxiation and that it’s possible the car seat chest clip inhibited the baby’s breathing.
Though her child had been going to the unlicensed daycare at Deborah Lundstrom’s home in north Springfield for more than a year, Savannah Banks had only been inside Lundstrom’s house a few times — and never when other children were present.
The child care provider, Deborah Lundstrom, is charged with involuntary manslaughter as well as multiple charges of endangering the welfare of a child. Police say Lundstrom was caring for eight other children under the age of 3, and left the home to go pick up her own kid from school.
According to Savannah Banks, a mom whose child was also in Lundstrom’s home that day, parents were not allowed inside Lundstrom’s home. Children were dropped off at the door, and no one had any idea how many children and babies were there.
“We weren’t allowed to come inside. The brief walk-through that we did at the very beginning was just to kind of give us an idea of what her house looked like, to let us know that it was safe and clean,” Banks said in March. “And from that point on, she never let anybody inside. She had the baby gate in the front, and she always met us right there at the door.”
Banks said she would have never used Lundstrom as a babysitter if she’d known how many babies were in Lundstrom’s home.
Following the death of that other child, Banks left the workforce to care for her own baby. She said at the time she couldn’t imagine letting a stranger watch her baby again. Banks eventually went back to work and is using her own sister as a babysitter.
Licensed child care centers are inspected, regulated
Had Lundstrom’s in-home day care been licensed, she would not have been allowed to have that many babies with her as the sole teacher. According to state law, one caretaker can care for no more than four babies. The ratio for preschool age is no more than 10 to each caretaker.
“Every child has needs. That’s the whole point of why you’re caring for them — is that you want to be able to adequately provide safety and care and education for each of those children,” said Dana Carroll, vice president of Early Childhood and Family Development for Community Partnership of the Ozarks. “When you have infants of varying ages or are all the same age, it’s really hard to take care of just their diapering and their feeding and their napping, not to mention the stimulation that you would provide.
“If you have more than four, it just makes it harder and harder,” Carroll continued. “The same is true as kids get mobile. … Then imagine, now you are chasing them as well as providing care for them.”
Robin Phillips, executive director of Child Care Aware of Missouri, spoke with the Daily Citizen not long after that child died.
Phillips explained it’s not against the law to run an unlicensed day care in the state of Missouri, but wanted to make a few distinctions:
“There’s unlicensed providers who are referred to as ‘six or fewer,’ meaning they can have no more than six children,” Phillips said. “They are not under any kind of regulation. They’re not inspected. There’s no health or safety inspections. They can be registered with the state for subsidy, but not all of them are.
“The other category that nobody wants to talk about is the underground child care where they are warehousing children,” she said. “In my opinion and my experience working and communicating with licensed and unlicensed providers, most people are going to say there’s no way I can care properly — was it nine children under the age of 3?”
Phillips said she’s heard of anecdotal stories over the years of in-home facilities having as many as 20 or 25 kids with one adult.
“This is nothing new,” Phillips said in March. “This has been going on for years — what people like me call underground care. They don’t want to be known. They’re like cash only.”
Phillips said these types of “warehousing” child care operations often use car seats and ‘pack-n-plays’ to corral the children for long periods of time.
After reading about an 8-month-old baby who died while at a Springfield woman’s in-home child care operation, Robin Phillips with Child Care Aware of Missouri said she was sickened. The child, according to police, was placed in a car seat and left unsupervised with eight other children under the age of three for about 12…
“There’s research around abuse and neglect — babies not getting the movement and the exercise because they’ve been in a car seat all day,” she said. “Now whether that was happening there or not, again, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised because how else are you going to manage nine kids under age 3?”
When the Daily Citizen reached out again recently to talk about the child care crisis, Phillips recalled what happened at Lundstrom’s day care.
“The thing that causes fear in me is when families don’t have options that are licensed and or high quality, or at least inspected by the health department and the fire department,” she said. “Then they’re making choices that probably aren’t the best choices. And then you are calling me to do a story about a baby that died. Like, I don’t want that interview.”
Other benefits of choosing a licensed center
According to recent data from Child Care Aware of Missouri, Greene County currently has a deficit of some 4,200 licensed child care spots.
While that deficit is no doubt keeping some parents from entering or returning to the workforce, many parents rely on unlicensed and unregistered child care providers, which are not regulated or inspected by any agency.
Some are lucky to have family or a trusted friend who can provide care for their little ones.
But many parents are turning to the internet and social media to find unlicensed providers, which can sometimes lead to dangerous situations.
That’s not to say there aren’t some really wonderful unlicensed and unregistered child care providers, Carroll said.
“But licensing is a good thing,” she said. “Regulations are a good thing.”
For example, if a day care is not licensed or registered, they don’t have to have working smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors or fire extinguishers, Carroll pointed out. They don’t have to have an evacuation plan or keep any kind of records — like contact information for parents, who’s allowed to pick up the child, medical or allergy concerns or immunization records — for the children in their home.
They don’t have to go through any kind of training like CPR training or have anyone checking to make sure they are following the law when it comes to caretaker-to-child ratio regulations.
“They don’t have to have a working phone,” Carroll continued. “They don’t have to have a fence around their play yard — all the things licensing requires of them.”
Phillips, with Child Care Aware, noted that in good child care situations, children get a chance to play. Something many people don’t think about, especially those who don’t have children, is how important brain development and interactions are within the first five years of a child’s life, Phillips explained.
“They don’t understand that children learn through play,” she said. “They are not sitting at desks when they’re 3 years old. They shouldn’t be doing worksheets. They should be allowed to learn and grow at their own pace and be creative and be guided by someone who has that knowledge and education.
“It happens in zero to 5, and if you don’t get those connections there, you’ve missed so many opportunities down the road,” Phillips said. “That truly lays the foundation. There’s so much research out there to prove it. But I think people don’t understand that.”
Often-desperate parents turn to Facebook
There are several Facebook groups for parents and child care providers in Springfield, Greene County and surrounding areas. These groups give providers an opportunity to advertise when they have space for another child and for parents to ask if there are any spots available.
It’s not uncommon for desperate parents to post that they need immediate child care the very next day, which leaves little to no time to meet the sitter, do an interview or background check, or call references.
Casey Ebhraim, a single mom who has struggled to find child care for her own children, said she used to offer to care for other children on these Facebook groups. Ebhraim recalled being shocked at the blind faith some parents seem to have in strangers who are offering to babysit.
“Some of them would come and talk to you for a bit,” Ebhraim said. “Then others would just send their kid with you. Like one lady just came and dropped her kid off. It is wild.”
Christy Davis is the director of the Wonder Years and Parents as Teachers programs at Springfield Public Schools. Davis keeps an eye on some of those Facebook groups, often posting about the Wonder Years program for people seeking child care.
“Honestly, it’s heartbreaking,” Davis said of the comments from parents. “Because when I go on there just to see what are families saying, what are the hot topics right now going on? — I see parents saying, ‘I need someone to watch my child or my children tomorrow. Can anybody help me?’
“And that’s when it’s like, wow. If you connect with the wrong person, what devastating impact that can make on your children,” Davis said. “I think parents are at such a loss to getting that support, and I know that families are one crisis away from maybe losing their homes. We’re putting families in a really bad situation when we don’t have accessible child care for them.”
Unfortunately, when parents are in desperate need of care, that can sometimes put their children at risk.
A parent’s perspective
Amanda Yoakum and her husband feel pretty fortunate when it comes to their regular child care provider for their children, ages 1 and 3. They have a licensed in-home child care provider who cares for just four other children.
But the provider is an older woman who likes to visit her own grandchildren. And that means the Yoakums are often on the hunt for some short-notice child care. They can work from home on those days, but want a sitter who will come to their home.
They tried using a subscription service like Care.com but had absolutely no luck.
Instead, Yoakum joined a Facebook group that was created to connect local parents with local providers and sitters — mostly unlicensed child care providers.
“Honestly I’m very anxious about leaving my kids with just anybody,” Yoakum said, “which is why we like to have somebody come to our house while we are working from home as an extra pair of hands.”
Yoakum said she insists on an in-person interview, usually at a coffee shop. She brings her kids, just to see if there are any “weird vibes” with the potential sitter. She also checks references.
“Most of the time, it’s college kids,” she said, and then began to laugh. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Girl, what are you thinking, driving to my house? You don’t know me. I live in the middle of nowhere. I can’t believe you are doing this right now. If I were your mom, I would be so mad.’”
A needed change
Jones, the mother we met at the beginning of this story, has reached the end of her child care dilemma. Her son, Kyree, is set to join the public school system, where Jones happens to work as a counselor. He’s going to have valuable social, emotional and educational experiences, she said. And her two youngest kids will be enrolled at the same school — a huge time-saver for her.
But this resolution for Jones came because her youngest has now aged out of the child care crisis years. For many Springfield parents, they are still in the thick of it.
Want to help?
Looking for ways to help child care providers and families?
- Consider donating books or supplies to an existing child care center.
- You could offer to sponsor a portion of a child’s care or donate to Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ David Stoeffler Every Child Promise Scholarship fund. This fund supports scholarships to help Springfield families access quality pre-K.
Read other stories in our series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.