MIDDLEBURY — Local child care providers are concerned that parents will have a tougher time landing financial assistance under a new state plan that would see applications processed at a central call center in Waterbury rather than by officials in the county.
At issue is a plan — which state officials said could be revisited by the incoming Shumlin administration — to phase out a dozen child-care subsidy “eligibility specialists” currently spread throughout the state. Jane Reilly currently holds that 35-hour-per-week job in Middlebury, where she helps eligible Addison County families apply for child care assistance and any other related services for which they might qualify. She has held the job since 1998, working with a clients list involving around 400 children.
“We try to be a holistic service as well as a child care service,” Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC) Co-director Barbara Saunders said of the broad range of help that Reilly provides. Reilly is based at the MJCC.
But Reilly’s job — and that of her 11 counterparts throughout the state — is slated to be phased out by this July as part of a new modernization initiative under way in Waterbury that would see more human services dispensed on-line and over the phone. The modernization plan is part of “Challenges for Change,” an effort by the Legislature and Douglas Administration to find millions in ongoing savings in state government. Officials reasoned that consolidating various human services — such as health care, Reach-Up, the 3SquaresVT food aid program and eligibility determination for child care assistance — through a single call center in Waterbury would save money.
As part of that effort, state officials laid out a plan to transfer the subsidy eligibility duties from the state’s Child Development Division to the Economic Services Division. The state has hired seven new workers to handle those subsidy eligibility inquiries in Waterbury as part of the central call center.
The switch to Waterbury is slated to start on Feb. 1 and be completed by early July.
“The goal is one-stop shopping,” said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, Child Development Division.
But Saunders and Reilly are concerned that some parents will find it tough to negotiate the new one-stop-shopping system. They noted the call center is already beset with a backlog of aid requests to process, leaving some clients waiting for services or giving up altogether.
And Saunders stressed that parents who need child care subsidies need to secure them quickly in order to secure jobs that sometimes need to be filled at a moment’s notice.
“You have young families with volatile work situations who are on the edge and need a lot of support,” Saunders said.
“We are concerned for our clients, because it’s a time-sensitive thing,” Reilly said. “When you get a job, you need child care, and your child care provider needs to know they are going to be paid.”
And with child care providers already being paid on the lower end of the salary scale, they can’t afford to forego payment for weeks while applications are being processed, Reilly noted. She added new delays in getting payment could prompt some providers to stop accepting subsidized child care placements.
“If they don’t know there’s somebody who has their back … then we are concerned they won’t reach out to the families and serve that population (that needs child care subsidies),” Reilly said.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, is an outreach social worker with the Addison County Parent-Child Center and is the vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee. He said he has been disappointed, to date, at the state’s attempts to modernize the provision of human services.
“We have seen efforts to make (the system) work better, but we haven’t seen the results yet,” Fisher said. He believes it would be ill advised to shift the child care subsidy application process to Waterbury until the delays and other kinks in the system are worked out.
Fisher and Murphy noted incoming state officials have voiced a willingness to rethink the shift of the child care subsidy application process to Waterbury. This week, former state Sen. Doug Racine will begin as the new secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, while David Yacavone will start as the new commissioner of the Vermont Department of Children and Families.
While Murphy is confident the new Waterbury system could work well and that the backlog at the call center is clearing up rapidly, she said she is open to new suggestions.
“I feel like the modernization plan is a good one,” Murphy said. “But if we don’t (proceed on Feb. 1), that’s OK, we will step back and see if we should try something else.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]