Anne Holman dropped her daughter off for her first day of day camp, only to return a few hours later and be handed her daughter and a refund check.
Holly, 7, has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism, and few child care providers have been able to accommodate her special needs.
When she first moved to Casper three and a half years ago, Holman used Child Care Finder to find child care. The website provided a searchable list of child care providers. Since then, she’s been asked not to return to two other child care facilities.
A single mother, Holman works Saturdays, and has also had difficulty finding weekend child care.
“I moved here without any family support, and if you don’t have family support, I think you’re at a real loss,” Holman said.
Like many Wyomingites, Holman had difficulty finding child care to suit her needs.
“Affordable, quality child care is critical for young mothers who work outside the home,” said Jillian Balow, administrator of the family assistance division for the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
When suitable child care is not available, women are more likely than men to stay home with their children.
“Women often step out of the workforce altogether,” said Richelle Keinath, executive director of the Wyoming Women’s Foundation.
That’s what Blithe Cummings did in 1998. After she had her second child, the cost of day care rose higher than her mortgage. She eventually found child care she could afford, but it seemed sketchy. When her son came home with bruises that the provider attributed to roughhousing, she started to worry.
“I couldn’t concentrate on my work anymore,” Cummings said.
With the support of her husband, she left her job as a billing coordinator to care for her children.
Suitable child care not only allows women to earn a living, it benefits the economy.
“It would generate more revenue if those women were working and those kids were in child care,” Keinath said.
In 2016, $107 million in revenue would be generated if additional child care expansion took place in Wyoming, she said.
In 2012, the average annual cost of full-time child care in Wyoming was $6,700 to $7,700, Balow said.
“Wyoming is in the top 15 states for affordable childcare,” Balow added, referring to a report by Child Care Aware of America, a nationwide information hub for parents and child care providers.
In its 2012 report, “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care,” the cost of child care was 10.2 percent of the income of an average two-parent, medium-income Wyoming family.
In Montana, the average cost of child care was 12.1 percent of income for the same demographic. In the Dakotas, it’s slightly less: North Dakotans pay 9.9 percent and South Dakotans pay 8.2 percent of their income.
But costs are higher for infant care, for which the state of Wyoming requires a higher provider-to-child ratio.
The average annual cost of infant care in Wyoming is $6,919 in home and $7,727 in a center, while the average annual cost to care for a 4-year-old is $6,737 in home and $7,316 in a center.
“The biggest issue — not just in Wyoming, but nationwide — is availability and affordability of infant care,” said Deanna Frey, executive director of the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance. “The cost of infant care ends up being more than the cost of tuition at the University of Wyoming for the first year.”
Tuition and fees for Wyoming residents at UW is $4,400.
The cost of child care is not just a poor people’s issue, she emphasized. (For those who qualify, federal child care vouchers are available through the state.) Coming up with that kind of money is also difficult for young couples who are just starting their careers and have low earning power.
“Families who have higher education may be making more, but they’ve got college loans to pay and mortgages,” Frey said.
In Wyoming, there are 800 active licensed child care providers, which can serve up to 21,000 children, according to Balow. Others may use child care providers that aren’t required to be licensed, such as family members.
“I’ve heard often from families just moving to the community how hard it is to find child care,” Frey said.
Oftentimes, parents with an infant and an older child will have to use two separate day cares, she added.
In 2009, the Wyoming Women’s Foundation studied child care needs in every town in Wyoming that had at least 2,000 people.
“There were no communities that had enough child care,” Keinath said.
Today, Balow does not know of any child care shortages in the state.
“We are not aware of any communities that we can’t assist,” Balow said, adding that her staff throughout the state is able to help parents find licensed child care in their communities.
The first step to quality child care is ensuring that basic safety standards are met.
“Licensing helps ensure quality,” Balow said. “Any child care provider that’s licensed receives resources in terms of information and continuing education.”
Beyond that, what makes child care high-quality is a matter of opinion.
“Quality is very individual,” said Deanna Frey, executive director of the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance. “Best practices tell us there are some key indicators, though: Licensing with basic health and safety standards being met, room to play, providers trained in fire safety, CPR, first aid, blood-borne pathogens, and whether the home or center has met basic health standards.”
Increasingly, curriculum to ensure that children are ready for school is an indicator of quality, for some.
“Now, when they walk in that (school) door, they have to hit the ground running,” said Nikki Baldwin, curriculum coordinator of the Early Care and Education Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Curriculum for school readiness varies greatly, she said. While some people focus on counting and learning numbers and shapes, others emphasize kids’ interest in learning, whether they see themselves as capable learners, and whether they are curious, confident and independent.
At a child care facility, that may translate into a rich learning environment, with plenty of space and different material with which children can explore, create and use their imaginations.
After much research, Anne Holman — the woman who couldn’t find child care for her autistic daughter — found child care to suit her needs.
During the school year, she uses a small day care provider for after-school care. This summer, Holly is attending a day camp for kids with special needs for the second time.
“It’s such a godsend, because I don’t know what I would do with her,” Holman said.
For her, the process of finding child care was sometimes frustrating. She hopes that more child care providers will consider accepting children with special needs and operating nontraditional hours.