Funding in peril for child care network in Md.


A statewide network of resource centers that advocates say is critical to maintaining the quality of day care for young children would virtually be eliminated under proposed state budget cuts.

Funding for the group of 13 centers, overseen by the Maryland Committee for Children, is to be slashed by 70 percent in the fiscal 2004 budget proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- a reduction that those who operate the centers say they could not sustain.

Some things the committee does to help parents -- such as maintaining an online, searchable database of child care providers -- could survive the cuts, said Sandra Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children. But the centers couldn't, she said.

The budget would cut state funding to the network of centers from $5.8 million to about $1.8 million.

"Child care has just taken such a disproportionate hit compared with everything else in the [Department of Human Resources] budget," Skolnik said.

Other child care services also are being cut. Money for vouchers that low- and moderate-income families can use for care will be reduced by 19 percent in 2004, from $134 million to $109 million.

The overall state Child Care Administration budget is to shrink by 34 percent. Child care services at 14 substance abuse treatment centers in Baltimore, budgeted at $1.4 million a year, were eliminated under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening before the end of last year.

Henry Falwell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said some of the voucher money is dependent on federal funding, which may come through and soften the impact of the reductions. In the meantime, he said, no one now receiving vouchers is being "pushed off the list."

But other cuts, such as those imposed on the resource centers, were tough choices forced by the need to eliminate a projected budget deficit of about $1.2 billion, Falwell said. "If funding is available at a later date, then this program would certainly be under consideration," he said.

The state child care budget will be reviewed in detail by legislators in hearings this week.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has been instrumental in the state's welfare reform effort, said providing child care is key to making that program work.

"We have to look at what is the impact of, in effect, denying people child care, especially when we're trying to keep people in the work force," he said.

The regional resource centers, started as a pilot program 12 years ago and expanded in 1998, also provide training at reduced rates for child care providers, with about 21,271 home caregivers and day care center staffers receiving help last year.

The centers, which employ about 100 people, receive a small amount of money from private and local government sources.

Flora Gee, director of the Greenbelt Children's Center, a day care program for 60 children ages 2 to 8, said the centers are a vital link for parents, providers and businesses. "What is proposed in these cuts will wreck the system," she said.

Gee said she fields about 20 phone calls a day from parents of infants needing care. Since she is not licensed to care for children younger than 2, she constantly gives out the number of the Prince George's County resource center. "Parents need that help," she said.

A 2001 report by a state commission on the financing of early child care found a shortage of day care openings for infants; there was about one slot for every 10 needing care. It also found that child care workers needed more training.

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