With both his eight-year-old daughter and another adult in the house, Kevin Mills, a stay-at-home dad whose family struggled to find child care, gets a few minutes to himself for a cigarette outside. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

This story is part of a series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

When early child care program directors and parents alike were asked what a family in search of early child care should do, the answer, unanimously, was to start making phone calls.

Specifically, they recommended that those calls begin as soon as you know you’re having a child. Call day care centers to find out about hours, availability, rates and the length of the waitlist, because there probably is one. 

“If you’re pregnant, you need to call and get on waiting lists,” said Christy Davis, director of Springfield Public Schools early childhood programs. “Like, you’re not going to have a spot if you don’t.”

Kara Ghan, who directs the child care center at Mercy Hospitals Springfield, agreed. 

“Call everywhere and get on their waiting list, because everyday care’s going to have a waiting list,” she said. “And that’s probably the biggest mistake — people will call us and (say), ‘We’re due next week, and we need day care in 12 weeks.’ Well, we have a waiting list that’s a year-and-a-half out. And they’re like, ‘Oh.’ 

“Don’t put your eggs in one basket,” Ghan continued. “You need to be calling everywhere and getting on everybody’s list, and talk to mother-in-laws, grandmothers, retirees in your family. You really need to plan ahead these days. I mean, it’s always been difficult. Even back when I had my first child 23 years ago, I didn’t initially plan on bringing my baby to this program, but then the people that I had lined up backed out on me, and I was actually fortunate enough that there was going to be an opening.”

Parents and expectant parents in Greene County can’t currently find a single, authoritative resource devoted to finding child care — although one is on the way soon with the new Child Care Connect program from Community Partnership of the Ozarks and Springfield Public Schools. 

Meanwhile, here are some resources to help begin the process of seeking early child care in the Springfield area. 

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The website of Child Care Aware offers information and advice for parents.

Try a referral service

Child Care Aware of Missouri is a state-funded program that offers advice on picking the right type of child care provider for your needs and your budget. 

“They give you a parameter,” said Rachel Christensen, a parent educator with the Springfield Public Schools Parents as Teachers program. “So if you need evenings, if you need weekends, if you want in-home or you want a day care center, whatever it is, you can set up some search parameters that really help dial you in a little bit better. You can search based on zip code, if your job is in the 65804, way on the south side of town, and you want to be able to get day care there, then search there.” 

The site provides suggestions on seeking financial assistance as well. Parents who would like help from a resource specialist can fill out a form that asks for info about the child care needs that need to be addressed. Resource specialists can also be contacted by email at referralcenter@mochildcareaware.org or phone at 866-892-3228 (option 2). 

The United Way’s 211 hotline is staffed by trained resource specialists who help people find community resources to meet numerous needs, including finding child care. 

The Council of Churches of the Ozarks is going through a transition phase with its program that used to be called the One Stop for Early Childhood. But the Council’s CEO, Jaimie Trussel, said that anyone who calls 417-862-3586 with referral needs for any issues — including food, diapers and child care access — will be assisted. 

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A young boy, whose family participates in the Parents as Teachers program offered by Springfield Public Schools, plays with learning materials brought to his house by a parent educator. (Photo provided)

Start with Parents as Teachers

Davis, who is in charge of the free SPS program, said it is the second piece of advice she gives parents after telling them to start making calls everywhere. 

“Parents as Teachers is a great place where they can get you connected to resources that you might need, but also to help you find high quality child care,” Davis said. “They can recommend some places that they have entered.”

The program is designed to start a child’s path toward the public education system, and help parents figure out how their child is developing and if they will benefit from special services once they enroll at an SPS early childhood program or K-5 school. The parent-educators do this through scheduled, hourlong in-home visits with prenatal to kindergarten-age children. 

“We’re there for an hour,” said Christensen, the parent educator. “We plan visits based on family well-being, the child development and parent-centered development. We just want the family to feel well-rounded and supported. Parents that just know what to be expecting from their child developmentally are just way more successful about getting ahead of the game as far as preparing their kids for kindergarten, for preschool even. 

“There’s even statistics that families that participate in Parents as Teachers have better (school) retention. They have better attendance when it comes to school. I feel like our program is really great for building up the community within the school. So I feel like that’s my big responsibility is for the families I serve to see how they can be a part of the bigger community within the Springfield Public Schools because that’s huge.” 

Before she joined the Parents as Teachers team, Christensen signed up for the service. The SPS team helped her not only monitor the development of her daughter, who was born five weeks premature, but also saved her the trouble of pointing out small things she said a parent would have eventually learned through trial-and-error. Through Parents as Teachers, families often take their first visits to the elementary schools their children will attend. During a visit to her daughter’s future kindergarten, the PE teacher pointed out to Christensen that gym class is held on a specific day of the week, and that it helps if the kids wear tennis shoes that day. 

“I probably could have come to that on my own, but just thank you for not making me waste my headspace on that,” she said. 

The program helped her navigate not only her daughter’s path to kindergarten, but also her own path to developing a network in Springfield, where her family had just moved.  

“I knew I was going to have to find a community somehow,” she said. “I didn’t know the schools, and so that was my way to plug into the schools. When you have an educator coming into the home, they’re talking to you about the schools, about the teachers, about events at the schools that you can attend before your kid is actually attending there.”

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Springfield Public Schools partners with Parents as Teachers to provide support to Springfield’s littlest learners. For those who need extra support with language skills, there’s a program just for them: Tiny Talkers, led by Parent Educator Tamara Scully.

The parent educators also serve as early childhood sherpas of sorts, because they know their neighborhoods. Each parent educator is tied to a specific elementary school, or set of them. Christensen is the parent educator linked with Bowerman and Robberson Elementary, and she has partnerships with day cares in the surrounding area to visit those centers and conduct developmental screenings if parents have given their approval. What the parent educators observe during those visits, they relay to parents who ask them about day care recommendations.

“When we’ve built up a good rapport with that particular place, we know how they run and operate,” Christensen said. “That’s a really great way for us to be able to be like: ‘I’ve been in this facility. I know what it’s like. It’s a good one.'”

See if you qualify for financial help

Assistance is available to underserved families. You can apply for state-subsidized child care online at the Missouri Department of Social Services website. Parents and guardians of children under the age of 13 or who have a child with special needs may be eligible for state-subsidized child care if they are low-income earners, attending school, homeless, disabled, participating in job training or are receiving services from the Children’s Division. As of April 2022, Missouri residents could qualify for child care assistance if their household income was 138 percent above the federal poverty level. That equals a maximum $36,564 annual income for a family of four. 

Low-income families, as well as children from homeless families or foster care, are among those eligible for the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation’s Head Start early childhood programming. 

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An online search for child care in Springfield will bring you a list of for-profit services and local child care centers. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Google it

While search engine results may not currently show you an easy-to-use resource for finding child care in Springfield, the internet is still a place to go for information. There are numerous websites dedicated to providing child care information. Tootris, Care and Winnie are among the many for-profit companies offering maps, links, user reviews and the like to help parents and guardians narrow the field of potential providers. Fees for parents or providers may apply for some of these services, though basic searches for day care providers only require users to create a login. 

To do some digging of your own about licensed providers, including capacity or how the facility did on recent state inspections, you can search this Department of Secondary and Elementary Education website by business name or address.

And the fact is that many, many child care issues are tackled on Facebook. Private groups like Childcare in Springfield, MO and Springfield MO Childcare connect parents with sitters, nannies, in-home providers and others when there is a need for care for a child. Often, the posts show that those needs are immediate. 

“We’re putting families in a really bad situation when we don’t have accessible child care for them,” Davis said.

Read other stories in our series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson