Jacquie Lee
credit: Jacquie Lee

Bright Beginnings, an accredited child and family development center that provides childcare to families that are homeless, held its annual Champions for Children event on April 30. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and members of the Washington Children’s Foundation were honored at the event for their work to protect homeless children and their families in the District.

When Representative Norton accepted her award she spoke about her grandson and how she does not worry about his future because of the educational and childcare resources available to him.

“The moment he stepped into the world his life was almost destined,” she said. “At the same time, the moment a homeless child is born in this world, her life is often destined.”

Resources are scarce for homeless and low-income families. Bright Beginnings has a waitlist of over 200 people, according to its Executive Director, Betty Jo Gaines.

There are over 26,000 children under the age of 3 in the District, but only 9,403 slots available at child care facilities, according to a report by DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that specializes in data analysis on children and youth. That means almost two thirds of District children do not have access to licensed child care.

Low-income and homeless families are hit hard by the dearth of child care, according to Whitney Faison, the volunteer and communications specialist for Bright Beginnings. Getting in the door can be difficult due to waitlists. Transportation can also be a barrier.

“It’s hard to pay to metro across the city to get your child there when you’re trying to work or go to school,” Faison said.

Parents who don’t have networking capabilities are at a disadvantage. “In many cases, only middle and upper class parents know where the best programs are because they’re on the neighborhood listservs and talking at playgroups,” Jamila Larson, executive director for Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, said. “Families in shelters don’t always have access to that kind of information.”

Possessing a license does not guarantee that a facility will provide quality child care. While searching for daycare in Maryland for her son, Larson visited only facilities that were licensed and found that many of them did not meet her reasonable standards. For example, one facility had a television blaring and did not regulate how much TV the children watched.

“A license does not stipulate how little or how much screen time you can have, even though any screen time is not good for children under 2,” Larson said. “It’s just crazy to me that you have all these licensed child care facilities with little oversight.”

The “Going for Gold” program is a voluntary system that  ranks child care providers who go beyond the minimum requirements for licensing on a scale from bronze to gold. There are currently 92 gold-ranked facilities, 24 silver-ranked facilities and 91 bronze-ranked facilities in the District, according to a Child Care Update report by DC Action for Children.

In 2014 the U.S Department of Health and Human Services awarded D.C. $900,000 to help improve existing child care as well as expand care to infants and toddlers.

D.C. also spent roughly $74 million on child care subsidies last year, according to the Quality Rating and Improvement System Resource Guide for D.C. Parents are eligible for child care subsidies on a sliding scale. In 2014, a family of three making roughly $20,000 a year would pay $44 in copayments a month for childcare.

Children are the ones hurt by low accessibility to high quality childcare, Gaines from Bright Beginnings said.

“It gives them their start,” she said. “It’s the beginning to the cycle of life that molds them into the person that they’ll eventually be.”