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County to Take Stock of Child Care Supply, Demand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the parent who has had to drive like a bat out of hell to retrieve a child from day care before costly late fees kicked in, or endured a frustrating search for quality care in far-flung locales, or panicked when seeking child care options for an 8-week-old, Los Angeles County wants to know: What do you need?

This summer, child care officials here and in other counties around the state will conduct a comprehensive survey of child care providers and legions of working parents, seeking to create the first clear statewide picture of child care supply and demand.

The survey is mandated by last year’s state welfare reform legislation and requires that counties assess local child care at least every five years.

“We really want to do a good, comprehensive look at . . . child care needs,” said Maria Balakshin, director of the child development division of the state Department of Education, which will review the survey results. “This will give us the very best data we’ve ever had.”

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Some counties have informally done similar surveys, dubbed needs assessments, for years. The welfare reform legislation makes them mandatory, sets minimum standards on the data to be collected and, for the first time, allows for county-by-county comparisons.

Information from the assessments, due to be completed by March, will help set child care policy, including funding decisions, into the next millennium, local and state officials said.

CalWorks, the state’s welfare-to-work program, will add at least 500,000 Californians to the labor pool, 60% of whom are single parents with at least one child of preschool age.

Some experts argue that increasing the supply of affordable, quality child care is crucial to the success of welfare reform. The survey, officials hope, will help identify gaps in local child care programs.

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The survey, the first such assessment in the county since 1986, is “a bigger deal because we have welfare reform and because child care is in the middle of its 15 minutes of fame,” said Kathy Malaske-Samu, child care coordinator for Los Angeles County. “While we’re in the spotlight, we need to make good use of that time so that when we become last year’s issue, we’ll still have an infrastructure [of data] that can then be built upon.”

The effort in Los Angeles County, where an estimated one in six residents is on welfare, is expected to be among the most ambitious.

Officials plan to expand the county survey, questioning not only state-licensed child care providers--including operators of child care centers and family day care homes--but also programs that are exempt from licensing requirements, such as Boys and Girls Clubs and after-school care.

County workers will attempt to assess the needs from ground zero, fanning out to playgrounds, parks and other areas to give children fliers to take home. Other details of the methodology have yet to be worked out, officials said.

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Although a primary focus will be on the needs of low-income families, Malaske-Samu said, workers will contact parents across a range of income levels. “We need to look at care across the continuum of age and income,” she said.

Nearly $160,000 in public funds has been earmarked for the local survey, which is being launched as Los Angeles County prepares to deal with an estimated 97,000 children whose parents are in the CalWorks program.

Although most counties began planning for the assessment months ago, state officials said, some, like Los Angeles, are just now beginning the survey.

Lisa Nunez of the county Department of Public Social Services noted that even in areas where there are child care vacancies, the problem of after-hours care remains.

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“Even if [the supply] is wonderful, it still doesn’t hit the nontraditional-hours care that’s needed,” she said.

The state also requires the assessments to include data on the needs of families eligible for subsidized child care, waiting lists, child care needs of children in migrant farming families and children with special needs or in protective services.

Last fall, the San Francisco-based California Child Care Resource and Referral Network conducted a detailed survey of licensed care in Los Angeles County.

Countywide, the survey found 38,700 slots in about 4,830 licensed homes and roughly 137,650 spaces in 2,130 licensed centers.

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Malaske-Samu stressed, however, that the ongoing effort is more than just a head count.

“We’re taking this whole thing very seriously, so that when we go back in three to five years, we’ll have an accurate base from which to measure.”


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