Joliet child care centers worried about stricter CCAP requirements

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JOLIET – A recently opened Joliet child care center might not survive much longer if Gov. Bruce Rauner’s strict eligibility requirements for state-subsidized child care stays in place, according to the nonprofit’s deputy director for early childhood education.

Dorothy Coleman said the Joliet Early Learning Center – 500 Parks Ave. in Joliet – has about 20 children enrolled. The four-story building, which opened in June, has capacity for 212 children.

“We didn’t expect to have 212 right out of the gate, but … we’re three months in. We expected to be maybe half-filled,” Coleman said. “How does a program survive like that?”

Because of new stricter eligibility requirements, most of the families who ordinarily would qualify for state-subsidized child care no longer are eligible, she said, drastically lessening the potential client pool.

‘That’s the irony’

The Joliet location is the newest of a dozen child care centers in the region managed under the nonprofit One Hope United.

When One Hope United chose the Joliet site, staff anticipated nearly 100 percent of the children would come from low-income families that rely on the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, said Beth Lakier, One Hope United’s executive vice president for early childhood.

The state awarded the nonprofit a $3.14 million grant to retrofit the building and serve a high-needs area, Lahier said.

“That’s the irony in all of this,” Lahier said. “The state recognized this as a community in need, but they’ve essentially invested in an empty building.”

Under CCAP changes, qualifying families must be considered one of the following: a teen parent enrolled full time in high school or GED classes; a family with a child with special needs; a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipient; or a working family with a monthly income up to 50 percent of the federal poverty line.

Families previously had to be at 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Some staff remain at the Joliet location, but others are substituting at other locations until enrollment climbs, Lahier said.

In the meantime, the center is focusing on enrolling children in the center’s federally funded Preschool for All program, with 30 slots available, she said.

‘An inherited mess’

The Rauner administration said the emergency rule changes are necessary to manage the state without a budget.

Rauner Spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said via email the administration is “taking steps to responsibly manage the state’s finances because of the $4 billion deficit created” by Democratic party leaders.

“Illinois cannot afford near unlimited child care without a balanced budget,” she wrote.

Rauner’s emergency rule changes are scheduled to expire 150 days from the filing, or by Nov. 30, but the Illinois Department of Human Services has two choices at that time, according to an email from the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

JCAR is the legislative committee that reviewed the emergency rule this month, but failed to get the super-majority vote needed to reverse the rule change.

DHS could let the rule change expire or file a permanent rule change that must go through the standard rule review process, according to the email.

The funding crisis is rooted in a spending plan approved in May 2014 by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Pat Quinn. Many criticized the budget for not having enough money to make it through the fiscal year – which ran from July 1, 2014, to June 30 – because it relied on the extension of the temporary state income tax hike that expired Jan. 1.

But Democrats have argued Rauner refuses to negotiate on the budget until lawmakers pass his Turnaround Agenda reforms, including changes to workers’ compensation and tort reform.

Amy Emerson, assistant director for Joliet-based Child Care Resource and Referral, said the service provider has laid off the majority of staff because of the budget impasse. Since July, Emerson said the organization has been forced to deny 90 percent of CCAP applicants because of Rauner’s eligibility changes. CCRR receives on average of about 20 applications a day, she said.

“These families can’t keep their jobs or take jobs [without CCAP.] They’re asking, ‘Should I just get on [welfare] instead?’ ” Emerson said. “Rauner is doing more harm than good.”

‘Ms. Wood and Papa Wood’

Janice and Edward Wood have managed Wood Group Day Care in Joliet together out of their home for nearly 40 years. It’s a small operation, but the couple – with extensive backgrounds in education and social service work – is passionate.

Edward Wood, 68, said he and his wife have received more phone calls from parents over the past few weeks seeking state-subsidized child care, but learn they no longer qualify under new guidelines.

“Another lady called the other day. She said, ‘I’m not from here. I don’t have a mother.’ So she was pouring out her heart to us. We can’t do anything sometimes but listen,” Edward Wood said.

Janice Wood said she’s concerned about what the eligibility changes might mean for children and families that rely on them for services.

“The children call me Ms. Wood. They call him Papa Wood,” said Janice Wood, 67. “A lot of these kids don’t have a male role model living at home. They look up to him.”

Edward Wood said he and his wife are at retirement age, but they continue on with the business because they “love what they do.”

“But I don’t know that we can continue if this goes on much longer,” he said.