Demand for good-quality child care is increasing, the supply of caregivers in Oregon is rising, and more complaints than ever are filtering into the state Child Care Division.
But there are fewer people than there were 10 years ago to respond to those increases.
"We have real serious staffing issues," said Janis Elliot, the division administrator. "Community awareness has grown dramatically. The demand has grown dramatically. The other thing that has grown dramatically is complaints."
The division regulates and monitors Oregon's 1,100 child-care centers and group homes. It investigates complaints about those and 13,000 family child-care homes. It does this with 14 full-time certifiers and one who works part time.
Elliot estimates the state has seen a 110 percent increase in child-care centers and group homes in the past 10 years and a 10 percent decrease in the division's staff.
Under national standards, Oregon should have 25 child-care spaces available for every 100 children younger than 13. The state averages 16 such spaces.
About 90 complaints pour into the division each month about family child care alone. Neighbors, parents and government officials mostly report suspicions about too many children or too little supervision. Only a small percentage of complaints levied against family child-care homes are investigated. Usually, the division will write the provider about a complaint and ask for a response.
Complaints about child-care centers and group homes always are investigated.
Despite these trends, Elliot won't be asking the Legislature for money to hire additional helpers. She wants to deal with other priorities, such as updating outdated computer systems.
"It's a chewing-gum and baling-wire data system that does not allow us to pull together information the community needs," Elliot said. "We do a lot of digging through old file cabinets."
While pressure increases on the child-care industry and those who monitor it, parents have higher expectations of caregivers.
Bobbie Weber, the department chairwoman for family resources at Linn-Benton Community College, said the quality of child care is viewed as important to the community's well-being. Child care, she said, was "an invisible issue" 30 years ago.
The industry's next hurdle is convincing people that child care is more than baby-sitting and that early childhood education is an important investment. But that might take some time.
"We're paying a very high price tag in terms of children who are violent, children who don't even begin to reach their potential because their needs . . . haven't been met," Weber said. "We are paying for our neglect."
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