Cat Jorgenson doesn’t return to her job as a special education assistant until August, but she started looking for a place to keep her infant son Liam in April.
Over several months, the Rohnert Park resident called between 40 and 50 providers and heard back from only five with possible openings.
It wasn’t until last week she finally found a provider in north Santa Rosa that she liked and who could take her 5-month-old.
“It was a huge amount of relief,” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d actually find something. I was starting to come up with ways I could quit my job and work from home, but I didn’t want to do that. I love my job; it’s my career.”
Jorgenson’s story echoes that of many new parents around Sonoma County who are seeking day care for their babies and finding a dearth of spaces and long wait lists. Indeed, the county is currently meeting just 34 percent of the need for infant child care, based on a report issued by the Child Care Planning Council in late 2014.
As a result, numerous parents reported experiencing a sense of panic as deadlines to return to work loomed, with many going to extreme measures to secure a place for their child. Some paid child care centers for one or two months of service before ever leaving their infant there, simply to reserve a spot. Others agreed to rates far higher than they originally planned to pay, and others settled for places that fell short of their expectations because they were the only option available.
“It really limits your ability to choose where you’re putting your child,” Jorgenson said.
Megan Hede, head of a network of child care providers called the Sonoma County Child Care Association, sympathized. “The last thing you want to do is compromise on child care,” she said.
Shaela Ross, who runs an at-home day care care in Santa Rosa off Sonoma Avenue and administers a Facebook group connecting parents with licensed child care providers, says she often has to warn parents about the lack of spaces.
“There’s (almost) no infant openings in Sonoma County,” she said. At her own day care, five families are on a waiting list for one infant spot set to open in August.
One of her clients, Cheriene Griffith, said she “got lucky” when she found an opening there for her infant daughter, Aurora, about two years ago. She found the place only after a roughly four-month search that began when she was pregnant. She almost settled for a place she wasn’t entirely satisfied with before finding Ross’ Heart 2 Heart.
“It was sheer luck of the draw, she said.
Child care advocates and providers around the county acknowledged the dearth of infant child care, which they agreed has gotten worse in recent years. They pointed to a number of factors contributing to the shortage, but the primary culprit seems to be a decline in the number of at-home child care centers, which provide the bulk of infant care in the county. These are state-licensed centers that operate out of people’s homes, serving up to 14 children, rather than larger, commercial child care centers.
The county lost nearly 20 percent of its family child care capacity between June 2006 and June 2015, according to Lorie Siebler, assistant director of resource and referral at the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs. In addition to running a number of preschools around the county serving low-income families, the agency provides referrals of licensed child care providers to families seeking the service. The at-home centers decreased from 465 to 367 in that period, she said.
She attributed that mainly to the recession, when demand for child care plummeted as a result of people being unemployed or underemployed. As a result, providers retired or changed jobs.
The county also lost $8 million in state and federal funding for child care vouchers for needy families between 2002 and 2012, Siebler said. This also reduced demand and forced 4Cs to close its only infant-toddler center in Healdsburg several years ago.
Now, demand is on the rise as more parents return to full-time work and more people have children.
For the first time since the recession, there was a small increase in the number of births last year. There were 5,071 babies born in 2014, an increase of 89 children from the previous year, according to county data.
But for a number of reasons, supply has not yet caught up with demand. Part of the reason for that is that the regional office responsible for licensing new centers suffered layoffs and hiring freezes during the recession with positions only restored a few months ago, Siebler said.
Another is that the fees most centers charge have not increased to keep pace with the cost of living, making the job less appealing in a place like Sonoma County, providers say.
An informal survey by The Press Democrat of numerous child care providers found rates for infant care ranged from $40 per day to around $65.
“If we charge like normal jobs do, parents would be paying an obscene amount,” Ross said.
Compounding that are state safety regulations that limit the number of infants a provider can care for at once and require providers to serve fewer overall children if some of the children are infants. Infants in California are defined as any child under 2 years old, while in some other states children 18 months and younger are considered infants.
That means that when a California provider accepts an infant, they have to wait longer than providers in other states before they are able to take on more children.
“It makes people unwilling (to accept infants),” said Grace Harris, president of Child Parent Institute, a Santa Rosa-based child advocacy group. “They can’t make as much money if they have less children.”
Brian Vaughn, director of Health, Planning, Policy and Evaluation for the county, echoed that.
“There’s a high cost for agencies trying to provide the service,” he said. “When businesses run on such a razor-thin margin and you add those ratios, the system is part of the problem.”
But state lawmakers would have to vote to change those regulations. Shaela Ross, the daycare provider, said she called numerous lawmakers on the issue but has yet to hear back.
In the meantime, local officials say they are aware of the dearth of infant care. Sonoma County and some cities have cut permitting costs in an effort to lower the barrier to entry for child care providers.
The county Board of Supervisors recently has indicated support for universal child care for preschoolers, which would help parents of children ages 3 to 5.
Vaughn said that effort will likely include an conversation about how to meet the needs of younger children, too.
Jenny Juhl, spokeswoman for 4Cs, said her organization would like to see that happen.
“Our push is now for that 0 to 3 age group,” she said.
In the meantime, families and businesses are having to be particularly resourceful, said Harris of the Child Parent Institute. That includes families trading off providing care for each other, spouses changing shifts so one parent can be home, and calling in help from other family members.
“People have to be really creative,” she said.
Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jamiehansen.