King County's daycare dilemma

Two-year wait lists and higher-than-state-college tuition: Why it's nearly impossible to find child care around here.
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Cutline: Cubbies are full at the start of school at Pike Market Child Care and Preschool. The center offers financial assistance to more than 70 percent of its families, with more than half of them earning incomes at or below the poverty level.

Two-year wait lists and higher-than-state-college tuition: Why it's nearly impossible to find child care around here.

When Jacqueline Miller moved cross-country from New York to Seattle earlier this year, she figured that finding child care was the least of her worries.

After all, child care rates in New York — along with Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles — are historically some of the highest in the country. But when Miller started searching online for child care in Seattle, she found an interesting surprise.

“I was stunned that it was comparable to New York in price and in demand,” said Miller, who is the President and CEO of the World Affairs Council. “This is my third kid, so I’m not new at this. Each one of them has been on a wait list for child care, but Seattle was especially frustrating.”

From New York she secured a waiting list spot for a well-respected daycare in downtown Seattle, near where she knew she’d be working, without ever having seen it in person. She had to pay a wait-list fee, but that didn’t guarantee a spot by the time her family arrived in town months later.

Then she waited.

“I didn’t hear back from them for months,” Miller said.

Miller isn’t alone. In King County, parents often stay on two-year waiting lists for child care, securing spots at multiple centers in the hopes of finding care before they must return to work. Even if you got on a waiting list the day you conceived a child, you’d still be waiting until after the child’s first or second birthday at some venues in Seattle.

While there are many kinds of child care, daycare center care — care from a large child care center in a commercial space — and in-home care — care from a provider in his or her home — are the most common. Daycare centers often have the longest wait times; with in-home child care providers, they are slightly shorter.

Kidspace in Ballard, for example, has a wait of one to two years for infants, with nearly 300 families on their list as of late August, said Executive Co-Director Fran Keown. The Seattle Denny Triangle Kindercare wait list time is about eight months. Other centers had more variable rates, but nearly all of them were more than eight months on average for infant care. That leaves a lot of parents in a lurch during a very stressful time.

Fernanda Freistadt, who lives in the Central District, was five months pregnant when she began looking for childcare.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m looking so early,” she said, laughing. “When I called, the woman said there was a 24-month waiting list. I thought she misunderstood me, so I went there in person and asked again. She said people put their names on the wait list before they even get pregnant. I couldn’t believe it.”

Freistadt went around town after that, putting her name on every daycare center waiting list she could find. She secured seven spots, knowing that she would need to return to work after her maternity leave.

“I think that’s part of what makes it so hard for everyone is that each parent is putting their name on every waiting list,” she said. “It makes it difficult to estimate exactly how long that list is because some people will walk in and get a spot right away and some people will wait two years, or more.”

When Freistadt went back to work in August after a five-month maternity leave, she and her husband settled on a combination of solutions for their infant son. Freistadt’s mother, who lives in Brazil, traveled to the States and watched the child for the first month. The couple joined a nanny share for the second month. Then their child joined an in-home care center in late September after a spot opened up.

“It’s very stressful. You want to leave your child in a place you also trust, not just the first one available out there, like you don’t have any other choice,” Freistadt said. “This was the most stressful part of the last few months.”

Seattle resident Adrienne Bentsen had a similar experience. When Bentsen was just out of her first trimester of pregnancy, she started looking at daycares. She nabbed a spot on two waiting lists, thinking that a 10-month lead would get them a spot before her maternity leave was up.

“Both places were hesitant to say they absolutely would have a spot open in 10 months, but they were saying most likely,” Bentsen said. “Then July came.”

Bentsen needed care starting in the last week of July, so she checked back in with the centers to see how long it would be before they had a spot.

“One of the places didn’t even call me back, and the other one was saying the soonest availability was mid-winter, so that would have been a year and a half wait, essentially,” she said.

New reports from advocacy group Puget Sound Sage and federal agency Child Care Aware show that in a large swath of the Puget Sound — from Everett all the way down to Tacoma — child care is not only difficult to find, but expensive to afford and varies greatly in quality.

Crosscut archive image.For the average family in King County, child care is a greater expense than housing or food, and in certain areas, more than housing and food combined, according to both the most recent federal report from Child Care Aware of America and the study released by advocacy group Puget Sound Sage. On average, full-time care for an infant at a daycare center is $17,300 per year in King County, according to Puget Sound Sage.

That’s $5,000 more than yearly in-state tuition at the University of Washington.

Child care costs go down as a child ages, so infant care is the most expensive. While average infant full-time child care in the U.S. ranges from $5,496 in Mississippi to $16,549 in Massachusetts, Washington is in a tie for the least affordable child care in the nation — along with Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado. Child Care Aware differentiates between the true cost of child care (what you pay per month), and the affordability of care (the cost of full-time care as a percent of that state’s median family income). So while some states have higher base cost of care, their median income makes that care more affordable, and vice versa.

Crosscut archive image.At left: The affordability index rate (the cost of full-time care as a percent of that state’s median family income) for single parents. 

Crosscut archive image.Washington state’s affordability has gotten worse over time, according to Child Care Aware. Affordability has been marked as a lower income problem for decades, but in King County it’s a problem creeping into the middle and upper classes.

Married couples are spending 15 percent of their monthly income on child care on average in King County, while a single parent is spending more than half an average income.

For Capitol Hill resident Cheryl Jacobs, the costs weren’t worth going back to work right away. Jacobs took unpaid leave from her job at a small architecture firm when her baby was born. She began visiting daycares when her daughter was about three months old.

“Visiting them, they were depressing. They barely had windows. My husband and I were like, well this is sad, and I don’t want to pay $2,000 a month for that, just to continue my career,” Jacobs said. “We could give her a better first year versus sleeping in that dark room with noise machines.”

After the initial tours, Jacobs decided to stay home with her daughter for her first year.

“It was tight to make things work, but it was a great year,” she said. “My daughter is so well-adjusted and doing well in school. Every parent deserves to spend that first delicate year with their child because it makes a difference.”

Infant daycare center prices around different parts of King County hover around $2,000 per month. At Bright Horizons in Redmond, for instance, infant care costs about $2,200 per month, Kidspace in Ballard charges $2,150 per month, and the Seattle Infant Development Center and Preschool in central Seattle charges $2,000 per month.

There are federal tax credits, state subsidies and city assistance for working parents who need child care, but those don’t approach covering the full burden of care.

Employer assistance would have helped Madrona resident Katie Benziger when she was looking for care, she said. As a cardiology fellow at the University of Washington Department of Medicine, she was struggling to balance 80-hour work weeks with finding care at shifting hours.

Residents and fellows are not able to take days off or change schedules when their kids are sick due to the nature of their work. They also usually make just enough to get by, without much room for child care costs.

“If you think about it, you finish undergrad when you’re 22, then you finish medical school when you’re 26, so these are all 26- to 40-year-olds I’m working with, in the prime reproductive ages, and there aren’t any resources for us,” Benziger said. “When I brought it up to my program, there were only two women in my class who had kids. There were 10 men whose wives had kids. It’s not easy to manage.”

Benziger got on the waiting list for multiple UW-affiliated centers when she was three months pregnant, and her son was just enrolled at 2 years old. In the meantime, Benziger and her husband have been using a nanny share with another physician with kids, and shifting their work schedules where they could.

The residents and fellows at UW Medicine recently took a vote on whether to become a collective bargaining unit and childcare is one of the biggest talking points, Benziger said.

“There aren’t a ton of residents and fellows with kids, but there are enough of us that it matters,” she said. “I think there are a lot of women in the work world, and going into medicine especially, but there’s not a lot of flexibility. I just needed a couple months to bring this child into the world, some accommodation for a working parent would have made a difference.”

King County's long child care wait times are influenced by multiple factors, experts and providers said. Part of the problem is a huge influx of new residents. Last year, Seattle grew faster than any other major metropolitan American city, according to the Census Bureau. But the biggest factor influencing wait list times is that there simply aren’t enough spots for all the children who need care because it’s difficult to open a center. Most child care providers blame that on licensing procedures.

Both large daycare centers and in-home providers are bound by both state and city rules and licensing procedures that regulate everything from the type of thermometer used for sick children to the amount of light in the room to the type of fastening materials used to hang posters on the walls.

The state even issues a nearly 300-page licensing guide with instructions for every detail.

For early child care providers who operate on slim margins, there is little room to expand or raise wages for teachers who often earn less than $24,000 per year on average, according to Puget Sound Sage’s recent report.

In-home provider Melissa Whitney, who runs Growing With Love Preschool and Childcare in Everett, has tried to open a larger daycare center twice.

“The cost to set it up the way the state would want would be staggering,” Whitney said. “It’s very exact what they want you to do. In-home care has its challenges as well, but when you’re an in-home provider and you’ve made it work for so many years, it’s a scary thing to jump through all these other hoops because what if it doesn’t work out?”

While much of the growth in early childhood care center openings in King County has flat-lined since the economy dropped in 2006, it’s still the larger daycare centers that have the ability to walk through the steps that the state requires.

“The large companies have someone who can push the paperwork, follow up with people at the state, and make things happen,” Whitney said. “I have experience and a heart in the business, but I just can’t afford to do what they want me to do to get a center up and running while I also run my own business by day. It’s not possible, and I think a lot of small daycare owners all over the Puget Sound are in the same position.”

The requirements, Whitney said, can also affect the price she passes on to parents.

During her last inspection, for instance, Whitney was required to install a permanent baby gate to replace the store-bought one that had been at the top of her stairs for years. The cost of requirements like that do add up, she said.

“There are a lot of things that we are required to do,” Whitney said. “And the people at the Department of Early Learning know there are problems, but they’re not sure what to do to fix the system either. It’s complicated.”

Families in Seattle are starting to get creative to make things work.

Parents are choosing anything from joining a nanny share, hiring college-aged babysitters, exchanging care with neighbors or friends, arranging alternate work schedules, taking sick days, using drop-in care, engaging multiple care situations, moving closer to family or moving their extended family members closer to help with care.

Sometimes, these are the only options when you simply can’t afford or find care in time for parents who need to go back to work.

Marcy Chartier, who lives and works on the Eastside, organized a patchwork solution when she had her first child. Her mom took responsibility for three days, and Chartier changed her work schedule to work from home on the other two weekdays.

“We just made it work,” she said. “We were in our 20s and didn’t have a lot of friends who had been through the same thing so we just pieced the week together as best we could. And it worked out for our family.”

After initially researching daycares, Allison Lewis now uses a nanny share with her sister’s family. She said the nanny has become an extension of their own family.

“My son is so happy to see her, so that makes me feel good,” Lewis said. “One of the struggles I found when I was looking for child care was that you have to start the search while you're still pregnant, but when you start looking that early you have to decide on a place before you even know the temperament of your child.”

Lewis said she thought it was important for parents to look at all the options before making a decision.

“It’s not a one-solution fits all thing. You have to figure out what’s best for your family and that takes time,” she said.

Chartier said no matter what they decided, they knew it was a cost they were willing to shoulder.

“When my husband and I sat down with expenses, this was the one place we didn’t want to compromise,” Chartier said. “No one wants to skimp on these things for your kids. It’s a big decision.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Caley Cook

Caley Cook

Caley Cook is a Seattle foster mom and a journalism lecturer at the University of Washington.