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How to Find Child Care for Children with Special Needs

Published on: December 29, 2011

How to find child care for special needs childrenAn interview with Marty Jacobs, MSW and Family Services Director at Child Care Resources

What services does Child Care Resources provide?
Child Care Resources is an agency that has been around for about 20 years and our mission is to make sure that all children have a great start in life. Our main focus is on providing access to high-quality childcare for children. On the one hand, we have people who work with childcare providers to help them improve the quality of their care — which includes providing services to children with special needs. On the other hand, we work with parents to help them in making the critical choice of selecting high-quality childcare for their children. We have limited amounts of funding to help people pay for their childcare, and we also help direct people who need financial assistance to identify sources to help pay for the care, because it can be so expensive.

I am director of the staff that helps parents choose quality childcare and find financial assistance to pay for the care. We maintain a database of all licensed childcare providers in King County, so we assess parents' needs for childcare — based on where they live or work, the hours needed, whether or not they have a child with special needs, whether or not they have language requests. But we also coach parents around how to go about looking for care. For instance, what are the quality indicators they should weigh, kinds of questions to ask providers during their search, etc. So we provide not only a list of providers, but information on how to connect with those providers and make the final choice that is the best one for their child and themselves.

Is the childcare search considerably different for parents who have children with special needs?
Usually parents seek care near where they live or work, so a lot of times it is a matter of helping them identify something that works for them in the area they want.  There are relatively few specialized programs for children with special needs — the Northwest Center is one and there are a few others. We update our childcare provider records annually, and we do ask them a list of questions about services or work that the providers might do to accommodate children with special needs. As examples, communications support or giving medication. Not a lot of providers either have done that or see themselves as doing that. In some cases, we coach parents to identify a high-quality program that will meet their geographic and hours needs, and to find out if that program will address any special needs their child may have or reach an agreement about their willingness to serve the child.

Why do you think there are so few childcare services and programs for children with special needs, given the demand?
I would not necessarily be the best person to answer that question, but sometimes I think it is a lack of experience, and perhaps a fear of the unknown. People perceive — and in some cases it is true — that it can be more expensive to care for a child with special needs. Childcare is not a field with a great profit margin to begin with, so I think there are economic reasons behind the lack of availability.

I also think there are lots of caregivers who get attached to children in their care — children who have special needs and those who don't — and once they have that connection and that relationship, they are willing to learn what they need to learn and to do what they need to do to care for that child, as long as it is feasible.

On the caregiver side, what does your CCR provide to providers, in terms of training, support, or information-sharing?
We offer regular training having to do with addressing some of the aspects and challenges — behavioral, health, and others — of caring for children with special needs. We also provide technical assistance to providers. Providers sometimes call and say that they are experiencing challenges providing care for a child, so our provider services staff will go out and observe the child in the program and make suggestions to the provider. If the special needs are significant, we may determine we need to pull in other outside resources. On the Eastside, Kindering does an exceptional job of helping providers work with kids who have special needs, so as an example, we may call them in.

The Department of Early Learning has funded a planning process to improve the quality of infant-toddler care, and we are working with Kindering and Public Health to create teams to work with childcare programs to improve their quality of infant-toddler care. We have pilots in Bellevue, Kent, and Auburn working with a limited number of programs on a team basis to provide childcare consultations, special-needs consultations,  and health consultations. That's a model we'd love to see go more widespread.

How did Child Care Resources come to be and who are the key players in the success of the organization?
Twenty years or so ago, the information and referral aspect of Child Care Resources was actually housed within the Crisis Clinic — what is now 211. The provider portion was housed in another part of the community. Some very forward-looking people within the city of Seattle, King County government, and elsewhere in the community thought that it would make sense to pull those two pieces together and have them operate as one organization. So CCR was formed at that time. Our original executive director was Nina Auerbach, who is now CEO of Thrive by Five. Deeann Burtch Puffert, our current CEO, was one of Nina's first staff members. Laura Wells, who is no longer with CCR, was a third founding staffer — she is presently working as an advocate for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which is an organization of sheriffs, police chiefs, and other people in criminal justice who are advocating for early learning funding and policy.

We've grown since then and expanded — about eight or nine years ago, when King County government got out of the business of childcare, we assumed the Homeless Childcare Program, which is a program to provide subsidies for families that are homeless so that those parents can fulfill the activities they need to do to gain economic and housing stability. This gives homeless children a stable place to spend their days. It's a different sort of special need, in that homeless children really need high-quality daycare. People who understand to some extend what they've been through and what their needs are, for nurturing care during the day.

We've also begun to work more in the area of family, friend, and neighbor care, because so many children are cared for by Grandma or Auntie or the former teacher next door who is an important part of the child's family and community. So we're working to support those caregivers through CCR services as well.

When you are helping parents identify a quality caregiving situation for their child whether the child is homeless, or maybe has special needs, or faces no obvious financial challenges or disabilities at all what are the most common questions CCR helps answer?
Certainly we help educate parents about what quality looks like. Parents' biggest concern typically is worrying if they are going to find a situation that is high quality. We will talk to them about what we feel are the indicators of high quality. These are things such as: the learning environment, levels of staff training and professionalism, the relationship between the provider and the child, the health and safety components of the program, cleanliness of the environment, do they have a plan for emergency preparedness, even something as basic as the providers' hand-washing practices. What is the provider's interaction like with the family? Are they welcoming, and do they respect the family's culture and values? Is the staff in training and working on making quality improvements? What is the teacher-child ratio, what is the group size? These are the types of factors and questions we help parents assess to find the right provider.

We encourage parents, number one, to determine what their values are, what they feel is important in the right childcare program. To support this process, we provide information about what we in the field feel are important quality indicators so that they can make a good choice. We tell them to trust their gut — if they go into a program and the children don't look happy and they don't feel their child will be happy there, we encourage them to keep looking.

How are these consultations typically happening?
We have a telephone line that parents call. We also provide services online, and the quality information is on our website. Personally, if I were talking to someone who was seeking care for their child, I would tell them to call our telephone line. The staff will have a conversation with them — which could last 30 minutes or even longer, if the parent has a lot of questions — to address their concerns and share perspectives on the quality indicators. And of course the service is free.

Do staff members discuss specific programs that they know of with parents?
CCR is not allowed to recommend specific programs to parents. We will give them all of the programs that meet their needs, based on the conversation we have with them. But we are not allowed to give a recommendation. Washington State is in the process of developing a quality rating improvement system, which will rate childcare programs based on a number of quality indicators. It is a program that most parents would really be excited to have. Unfortunately the state budget crisis has meant that the program has not been implemented as quickly as many of us would have wanted. It's been piloted in about seven communities around the state — White Center, Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver, and a few others — sometimes with state-provided money and in some cases with locally raised money. So we've created a model of a quality rating and improvement system and it is just going to take years until the state budget is better or unless we get federal money to implement the program broadly. It is so needed.

What is your background?
I have a master's degree in social work. I started out in healthcare, working in the neonatal ICU and high-risk obstetrics at the University of Washington. But when my son was young, I got very involved in his childcare program — I was on their board and helped them with the parent component of securing accreditation. I moved into the early learning field when my son was about five and I've stayed there — he's about to turn 26. I can still recognize things that he gained from that program that I value so much. I really believe in high-quality childcare. Clearly the cost of childcare is worth the investment, because of the direct benefit to kids and also the lower cost to all of us as taxpayers. The cost-benefit varies, but I use the rule that for every dollar spent on childcare, we save $7. That is a good return in any economic setting!

Visit the Child Care Resources website for a wealth of information on finding high-quality childcare in King County.

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