In five months, the downtown Baltimore day care attended by Celine Plachez's youngest son is slated to close, yet she's not looking for a backup. She can't stomach it.
She searched before he was born, calling about a dozen places, some of which said they wouldn't have an opening in the foreseeable future. Others were so expensive, they cost more than tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park. And a handful were just plain unacceptable in terms of quality.
So she's devoting her energy to finding a way to keep open the Children's Choice Learning Center, housed in the Social Security Administration building on North Greene Street.
"Call me crazy — I refuse to look. I want to fight," said Plachez, a scientist who lives in Federal Hill. "We can make it happen. It's not impossible, it's not unrealistic."
Plachez's response to the center's planned closure highlights a frustrating reality: At a time when the city is trying to attract and retain families — and more women work than ever before — there's a lack of high-quality, affordable, regulated child care in Baltimore.
The shortage is particularly pronounced for children younger than 2, like Plachez's son, who require a higher, 3-1 ratio of children to staff under state law, making their care cost-prohibitive for many facilities.
For some who live or work in the city, the situation has significant consequences.
Rachel Winer Sticklin of Canton is postponing having a second child until the first is out of day care because her family can't afford to pay for two at once.
Judy O'Brien of Otterbein started looking for a spot two years before her newborn needs it, knowing she faced long waiting lists at many places.
And Jana Gauvey of Federal Hill brings her kids to Baltimore County, where she works in marketing, for their care.
"There weren't that many options close to our home," Gauvey said.
Others, particularly those with low incomes, are putting their kids in informal, unregulated city settings — often in the homes of neighbors operating babysitting businesses — in the hope that the financial savings won't equate to inadequate care.
Not enough spaces
Roughly 13,300 Baltimore children younger than 2 have mothers who work, and many of them need some kind of child care, from relatives, hired sitters or centers, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of state data. Licensed facilities can accommodate at most 20 percent of them.
The surrounding counties face a similar issue, though only Anne Arundel County's case is as severe. In Howard County, for example, licensed facilities can handle up to 35 percent of the children under 2 who might need care; in Baltimore County up to 27 percent can be accommodated.
The quality of care is also thought to be less variable in the counties. A greater percentage of children enter kindergarten fully prepared in the counties than in Baltimore.
"In most cities, there is always a shortage of infant and toddler care, mainly because it's expensive to do it right," and Baltimore is no exception, said David W. Andrews, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. "The ratios of adults to children [here] just don't make it a very profitable scenario unless you're able to charge upward of 17, 18, 19 thousand per kid."
There are also a "number of consequences associated with" doing it wrong, Andrews said.
Studies increasingly show that the early years are crucial to a person's development. Ninety percent of brain growth happens before age 5, and the first three years of life are particularly important. Young children and infants are primed for learning, educators said, and their environment has a lasting impact.
Studies show that while parents have a strong influence on young children, day care effects can linger. Children in the highest-quality programs — where kids feel comfortable, stimulated and cared for by a stable staff — do the best years later in terms of social and academic development, and even health and economic prospects. Those who receive poor care are more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system, act out or drop out of school.
Yet early childhood education in the United States receives the least public investment of any schooling, leaving parents to bear much of the financial burden.
The average cost of full-time infant care at a Baltimore center, as opposed to a home-based site, is about $11,560, according to data from the Maryland Family Network, a private nonprofit that advocates for children and families.
That figure, which factors in the highest- and lowest-quality care options, is 40 percent higher than the average cost of tuition and fees at a state university — $8,220 in 2012. And it's roughly 30 percent of the median household income in the city before taxes.
"It's a real struggle for most parents," said Steve Rohde, the network's deputy director of child care resource and referral services.
The state's poorest families receive some help through care vouchers, but not enough, Rohde said.
Maryland's Child Care Subsidy Program has recently been released from a freeze that saw the number of children served drop through attrition to 16,500 in January from 26,000 in early 2011.
Funding problems have meant that many people who should be eligible for the program aren't, and those who are eligible are relegated "to the cheapest and, in many cases, the lowest quality care in their communities," according to Maryland Family Network testimony submitted last month to the state legislature's Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
And the subsidized families are still paying an average of nearly 15 percent of their already stretched household incomes in co-pays, according to the Maryland Family Network.
It's not just the poorest families who are hit hard by the price tag of child care, however. Middle-class parents, especially those aware of the studies discussing the importance of quality care, face a dilemma. They can't comfortably afford the priciest care, but they're afraid to accept anything less.
"We've put off having a second child" until the first reaches school-age, said Sticklin, whose 4-year-old son attends Downtown Baltimore Child Care Inc. "It would be too expensive to have two children there at the same time. It would be like another mortgage payment for us."
The nonprofit center, located on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, charges more than some other city options, but says it also offers better-than-required staffing ratios and a research-based education program. Full-time tuition for preschoolers ages 3 and up runs about $13,500 per year; the infant program costs $20,400.
Sticklin started looking for care when she was about four months pregnant, knowing that she wanted to return to work when her son was 12 to 16 weeks old. She interviewed nannies, looked at every available city center and checked out home-based, family facilities, ultimately deciding that bigger was better for her.
"I was much less comfortable with the overall safety aspects of [home-based care]," said Sticklin, who works in human resources. "I went to a few of them in rowhouses, and it just seemed very cramped, just cribs lined up in a room, and it just didn't give me a good feeling."
While many families are happy with small, home-based operations — which are often the most affordable — they can be harder for parents to evaluate, said Andrews, the Hopkins dean, because they're less public than center-based care.
Data from the Maryland State Department of Education also show that kids who are cared for in centers are better prepared for kindergarten than those in family facilities — 87 percent compared with 77 percent statewide. (Children who stay home or with a relative are the least prepared statewide, at 71 percent.)
In Baltimore, 77 percent of children who attend centers were ready for school last year, compared with 61 percent in family facilities.
That often makes center care the most in demand, though the quality varies widely from place to place.
The department of education is responsible for regulating, licensing and inspecting all child care centers and family facilities in the state.
Parents can look up inspection results online at http://www.checkccmd.org to see if centers are up to date in their staff training, providing safe spaces and putting the proper development plans in place for each child.
But the information available online is incomplete and can be misleading. A loose-fitting bed sheet could be logged as violating a regulation about having a properly outfitted crib, for example, and scented soap might be documented as a potential safety hazard, child care workers said.
They point to a new, voluntary rating program called Maryland Excels (www.marylandexcels.org) as a better way to gauge program quality. The initiative, in the pilot phase for two years, is set to go live this month, giving participating centers an incentive to improve their offerings and parents a means to further assess the care at a particular site.
A difficult job
Child care is a tough business. It pays an average $18,000 a year for aides and $26,000 for senior teachers. And it has a high turnover rate, which educators said isn't good for children, who need stability and lasting bonds.
Margo Sipes, executive director of Downtown Baltimore Child Care, said low turnover is one of her center's best selling points. Her teachers have an average tenure of more than nine years.
"We pay a little bit better, not a whole lot. It's still abysmal, it's an abysmal wage," Sipes said. But they make up the difference with benefits such as health and dental packages, paid leave, staff development and smaller class sizes that help prevent burnout.
The center, open for 30 years, frequently has waiting lists, especially for its youngest slots — something that often causes great consternation for parents.
"I've been offered $1,000 under the table to over-enroll a classroom. … I've had people sobbing on the phone," Sipes said. Others have called board member contacts, hoping they will bend the rules.
"Infant care is very hard to get; there are not enough slots. And then if you count quality slots, there are really not enough."
At Streetlite Christian Child Development Center, a church-affiliated facility in Federal Hill, the waiting list extends into 2016 for women who are pregnant now and want to enroll their children at age 2, said director Carol Zimmerman.
The center, which doesn't accept infants, just raised its rates from $230 per week to $242, about $12,600 per year.
O'Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, put her now 3-month-old son on Streetlite's waiting list for fall of 2015 weeks ago. He's No. 20 on the list.
"I should have done it in utero, I guess," she said of searching for his care. Her organization works to keep current families in the city and to draw new ones. The lack of day care is a hindrance, she said.
"It's definitely something that causes a lot of anxiety and frustration," O'Brien said. "If there aren't options available, I think it might be something — for somebody who's on the fence about leaving — it might be something that kind of breaks the camel's back."
There's no indication yet that young families are leaving the city because of the shortage of day care, economists said, though many do flee once their children reach school age.
But it's an issue that could arise in the next decade as the young millennials being hired by companies and brought to the city reach the family stage, said Mike Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Advocating for adequate child care "is something I anticipate we're going to be doing a lot more of in … the future," Evitts said.
Day care in peril
The Downtown Partnership has been talking with Children's Choice Learning Center to determine if the organization can help facilitate a relocation. Among the challenges are finding available and suitable real estate — the center is closing because the Social Security Administration that leases space to it is moving.
"There is a real lack of supply of high-quality child care and early education across the country, and especially in urban areas, including Baltimore, where real estate can contribute to this problem," Lara Holder, a CCLC senior vice president, wrote in an email. She added that the company "would love" to find a way to stay in the city.
The learning center is part of a chain based in Texas. It partners with employers, frequently those in the health care industry, to offer site-based child care at discounted rates for employees.
The Baltimore location gives preference to the children of federal employees, at a discount of between 10 percent to 15 percent. The center's infant rate for the general public is about $14,000 per year.
Both of Ann Walsh's children attended Children's Choice Learning Center. Her eldest daughter has graduated to a city school, and her toddler son is there now.
"We would like to stay there because we really like the staff and the organization and the care," said Walsh, who lives in Patterson Park. Still, she's put her son on a waiting list at another facility and is exploring the idea of a temporary nanny or family care until he turns 2 and more options open up.
"Every time a center in this city closes, all the other centers are flooded," said Walsh, who works for the state department of health.
Late last year, the learning center sent families a letter saying that the SSA planned to relocate to a new building and the facility would close in June 2014. Later, the closing date was moved to December.
Plachez was devastated. She has collected 1,000 petition signatures and contacted politicians and city leaders to advocate on behalf of Children's Choice Learning Center, hoping it will extend the deadline or turn up a new partnership that will keep the center going.
"My son is so happy there, I want to keep him there," said Plachez, whose eldest son also attended the learning center. "The best thing for everybody is to keep the center open."