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Finding child care in Kansas was a challenge before the pandemic. Now it's even harder

 Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas estimates there are 74,000 childcare slots in Kansas to care for the 153,000 children who might need care.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas estimates there are 74,000 childcare slots in Kansas to care for the 153,000 children who might need care.

Facilities closed down during the pandemic. Those that survived are now struggling to find workers.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Finding child care in Kansas has become so hard that some Kansas parents now plan pregnancies around open child care slots.

“They are actually trying to time their pregnancies,” said Reva Wywadis, executive director of Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas. “We used to talk about a child care shortage, and now we're talking about a child care crisis.”

Her organization estimates that roughly 153,000 children in Kansas need child care. Yet only 74,000 spots are available statewide. Kansas lost about 800 family care homes between 2018 and 2022. The number of child care centers, which often have the largest capacity, and group child care homes remains steady. But staffing shortages limit their overall effectiveness.

“They were all impacted significantly,” Wywadis said.

She said the last few years pushed child care professionals toward retirement or to different jobs. The availability of better paying jobs and the stress of the work could have led to more people quitting, Wywadis said. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021 estimated the average pay of child care workers in Kansas was $23,440 — one of the lowest in the country.

As child care options shrink, parents are considering quitting their jobs to care for children or using their paid time off to pick them up after school. Others drive miles out of their way to find an available spot. Rural areas with fewer facilities, parents with non-traditional work hours and foster parents all have unique needs that are not being met by the shortage.

Joni Hiatt, Kansas director of family programs for Foster Adopt Connect, said foster families take children at a moment's notice and struggle to find available child care. She said some families are opting not to take in foster children because they lack adequate child care.

A survey of 90 parents by the Kansas Caregivers Support Network found that only 30% of foster parents found child care facilities that accept the Kansas Department for Children and Families rate for assistance, meaning they will pay out of pocket for the costs. Another 34% of parents only sometimes found facilities accepting that payment.

Hiatt said some parents are calling 10 facilities before finding a spot while others are told to wait a year for infant care.

Children under the age of 6 might need child care, unless they start preschool. Hiatt said that is an important time for children to socialize and spend time with peers.

Wywadis said if parents lack child care, they can’t reenter the workforce. And if they can’t work, local businesses struggle to fill jobs.

Wywadis and Child Care Aware are working with communities to get business to pool their resources and pursue child care grants. But, she said, there isn’t one simple fix.

“The solution is going to look very different in different communities,” she said.

“The more we can come together and work collaboratively and collectively to try to address the need, the better off we will all be as a society.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Blaise Mesa is a reporter for the Kansas City Beacon. He is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government. Mesa previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. He also worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.