Parents scramble to find child care

NASHUA – Phone lines were busy at day-care centers across the city last week. Suddenly, it seemed as if the whole city was looking for child care.

Since Tuesday, when the Greater Nashua Child Care Center announced its Friday closing date, parents who relied on the center for affordable day care have been scrambling to find a comparable facility that has room for their children.

They’re running into some obstacles.

The GNCCC isn’t the only subsidized child-care provider in the city, but it is – at least for a few more days – the cheapest.

Jill Ryan-Fortier worries she will have to drop out of the paralegal program at New Hampshire Community Technical College unless she finds a caregiver for her 9-month-old daughter in the next week.“I’m going to have to leave school and I’m going to have to sit on welfare until I find something else,” said Ryan-Fortier, who is receiving state assistance to help pay for child care while she’s in school.

According to Chris Lister, child-care coordinator for the city of Nashua, the average agency charges around $190 a week for a toddler. The GNCCC charged $90. The state offers the same amount of assistance to all families who qualify for subsidized day care, regardless of their child-care provider’s fee.

Even when state assistance is factored into that fee, parents of children who attend the GNCCC may soon have to pay around $100 more every week for child care.

“The GNCCC happened to have the lowest rate in the city,” Lister said.

Christina Mendoza can’t afford to pay $100 more. Mendoza, who works for BAE Systems, said she doesn’t qualify for state assistance but doesn’t make enough to pay for the average cost of child care. She has called almost every provider in the city and the lowest rate she has found is $150 – close to double what she pays now.

Mendoza said she doesn’t want help from the state because she makes more than some of the other GNCCC parents. She just wants affordable child care.

“I don’t want help because I really don’t need it,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said the city needs a center such as the GNCCC that provides low-cost child care for people who don’t want to rely on state assistance. The center cited long-running financial problems as forcing the closure, and an employee said it would need $150,000 to keep operating.

For parents such as Ryan-Fortier, the higher cost of other area centers isn’t the only negative consequence of the GNCCC closing. Even if she could pay more for child care, she would have a difficult time finding a center that has room for an infant.

Because many child-care providers don’t have infant rooms, Lister said, the ones that do usually have a waiting list.

“In Nashua, there is a shortage of infant care,” Lister said.

When the GNCCC announced its impending closure, Ryan-Fortier was referred to two agencies that offer subsidized child care – the Adult Learning Center and Southern New Hampshire Services. SNHS doesn’t take infants, and Ryan-Fortier is fifth on the waiting list at the Adult Learning Center.

Stefan Russakow, director of the city’s Division of Public Health and Community Services, said child-care shortages aren’t uncommon.

“I suspect that there are probably more children that need child care than there are slots,” Russakow said.

However, as grim as the cost of child care and the shortage of low-cost providers may seem, parents aren’t out of options yet.

Area centers have been doing a little scrambling themselves since the GNCCC announced its closure to find a way to accommodate the 65 children who attend the center.

Sue Sullivan, director of Minds in Motion, is considering opening another toddler room in her center to make room for some of the GNCCC’s infants. On Wednesday alone, Sullivan received 14 phone calls from panicked GNCCC parents.

Sullivan said four centers that accepted state assistance have closed in the past 10 years. The GNCCC closing won’t be the first time she has expanded her center to accommodate more children.

“We’ve always changed our center to meet enrollment needs,” Sullivan said. “We have room in the building to expand.”

Minds in Motion currently has 21 openings, although only three are for children younger than 1 year old.

To assist parents who are concerned about the cost of replacement child care, Sullivan said she is prepared to waive the center’s $40 enrollment fee.

Although it doesn’t take infants, Southern New Hampshire Services is considering the possibility of expanding its Nashua facility to care for children younger than 1, said Susan Wall, operations manager for Southern New Hampshire Services’ child-development center. The center currently has more than 20 openings.

However, parents such as Ryan-Fortier and Mendoza said they don’t know how they’ll pay another center’s fees even if they expand to accommodate more children.

“I’ve never felt so lost about something,” Ryan-Fortier said.