Child care providers are hoping a new local consultant position funded by the BC government will be one step toward improving child care services in the Powell River area.
May has been proclaimed Child Care Month by the province of BC and Thursday, May 18, is Child Care Provider Appreciation Day, but child care providers and industry representatives in the area recognize much work needs to be done in order to improve services.
Access to support and networking for child care providers and parents is one problem, according to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) licensing officer for Powell River Christine Kennedy, who has been employed by VCH for the past five years. However, the even larger issue, according to Kennedy, is lack of child care spaces and qualified staff.
As Powell River's population grows and becomes younger, the need for more child care providers continues to increase, but the pool of certified early childhood educators, traditionally a low-paying job, is very shallow.
"Access to qualified staff is definitely a problem here, as are education resources," said Kennedy. "Some people have suggested that they don't believe an early childhood education certificate should be required to operate a centre, but we're trying to get better child care, so that's not really an option."
Powell River currently has more than 30 child care centres, approximately 20 of which are licensed; the remaining 10 or so are family-run from the home. While the licensed centres require certified staff, the family-run centres do not, although they still need a business licence to operate.
A current job posting by PacificCARE, an organization based in Nanaimo that offers programs that support child care throughout the province and is funded by BC Ministry of Children and Family Development, is looking for a permanent, part-time child care consultant for the Powell River area to start as soon as possible. PacificCARE had a similar position in the area that ceased several years ago.
“We found there was a need in the community, and the community asked for it, to have a person on a more local basis,” said PacificCARE executive director Scott Beam. “We are always trying to improve our services, so we adjusted our budget to make it work and meet that need.”
The hope of local child care providers is that the reinstated position will provide more support services and create a community among early childhood educators and parents.
“Our hopes are that the consultant can get a feel of the child care situation in Powell River and make assessments about what is needed,” said Beam.
Roots and Wings Early Learning Centre owner Maggie Ellwyn said she remembers when PacificCARE had a dedicated consultant in the area and it helped to bring child care providers together for networking and education opportunities. The past few years have been lacking in communication and resources, according to Ellwyn.
Although Ellwyn’s centre has five staff members who network among themselves, most centres have individual care providers and the community as a whole could benefit from a dedicated child care consultant, she said.
"It's important just to have the support network and to talk about the challenges and benefits of working with children," said Ellwyn, "and to get much-needed feedback from parents about what they are wanting and needing, as well as how children have grown and developed over the years."
One of the large gaps Kennedy identifies is in care for children aged 0-3. Because of regulations on the number of children in that age bracket that each centre can have, a lack of centres creates specific challenges. While Ellwyn's centre currently has 12 children aged 0-3, family-run centres are only allowed to have the equivalent of three full-time children in the younger age bracket.
Meanwhile, centres that are closing down are not being replaced by enough new ones, said Kennedy.
"We have quite a few of the family-run centres that are going to retire in the next few years," said Kennedy, "so that's going to be a big problem when those ones close. We need more people willing to operate centres.”
Last September, Debbie Mueller opened Ladybugs Daycare, a child care centre, out of her home. The family centre currently has approximately 12 children registered part-time, all but one of them are three years old or younger. Mueller said her centre filled up very quickly, just by word of mouth.
"The kids I got right away were the children of my friends, and they were leaving a day care that was closing down, so I knew how desperate the situation was," said Mueller. "I've been extremely busy and I still have a lot of people asking me if I can fit kids in, even for a half-day a week."
Mueller agreed that more resources for child care providers would be useful, including a permanent consultant for Powell River. Currently, Mueller said when she needs support she contacts PacificCARE consultant Michelle Carty, who comes to Powell River twice monthly and also handles Comox Valley. Carty will be the contact point for the new Powell River consultant, said Beam.
Many other challenges still exist in child care, an industry that has traditionally been under-recognized, and those challenges apply to family centres as well as larger child care facilities such as Ellwyn's Roots and Wings.
"One of the biggest challenges is a lack of respect for our profession," said Ellwyn. "It's something that's always existed, despite best efforts to educate people and for them to understand we're not babysitters."
Another issue, according to Ellwyn, is that early childhood educators rarely receive feedback about how they are performing in their jobs. While Kennedy handles licensing and monitoring through the health unit, she only ensures centres are meeting minimum standards and no stringent review of staff is required.
Parents are often too busy to provide critiques and are just happy to see their kids at the end of the day, said Ellwyn.
"At pickup, it's usually something like, 'Okay, thanks, you kept them alive. Good,' and then they are off," said Ellwyn.
The rate of pay for most early childhood educators is alarming, said Kennedy. While family-run centres can be profitable under the right conditions, most staff members are making little more than minimum wage, according to Kennedy, and are often left without access to professional development found in other industries.
"The wages these workers receive are often very minimal," said Kennedy. "Who's going to go to school for a year and then come out making minimum wage?"
Kennedy's job entails ensuring all child care centres meet requirements for safety, including the amount of space, staff qualifications, care planning for special needs children, enough access to outdoor play, healthy nutrition and more.
One thing Kennedy has noticed in her monitoring of Powell River is the quality level of child care, which she said, overall, is high.
"Child care workers are pretty much raising our children, so they deserve a huge amount of respect for working with very little wages and resources," said Kennedy. "The care they give these children is essential for their development."