A year ago, Massachusetts set out to improve access to stable, high-quality child care for low-income families. Instead it created a complicated, centralized bureaucracy that is so poorly staffed, more than 2,000 families are now waiting to find out whether they’re eligible for subsidized care vouchers.
The backlog is so long — wait times often exceed five months — that some families are losing provisional day-care spots while they wait for their paperwork to be processed.
"They have made this complicated system, they don’t have the resources to staff these reviews, and that’s harming families and providers,” said Sarah Levy, senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. The organization is representing families challenging the state rules in a lawsuit filed last year in Suffolk Superior Court against the state Department of Early Education and Care.
The new rules were enacted to comply with a federal law that requires states to provide needy families with 12 months of continuous care without fear of termination because of work or income fluctuations. Under the state’s old system, day-care providers typically reviewed a family’s application and decided whether they met eligibility requirements. Now it’s the department’s job, and it’s understaffed. The old system gave those who were denied a 30-day grace period to find care. Now that’s gone, too. And the state has curtailed the ability of parents claiming a disability to appeal if they’re rejected for a subsidized voucher.
“The state would give us time to work with them, but there’s no soft landing now,” said Stephen Huntley, president of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education & Care, the industry’s trade association, and executive director of Valley Opportunity Council in Holyoke, a child-care agency.
The red tape and inadequate staffing have only exacerbated problems with child care access for poor families in Massachusetts. Some 55,000 families receive state-subsidized care, but another 16,000 families are on a waiting list hoping for either a subsidized spot in a child-care center or a subsidized voucher to become available.
Under the new rules, once a spot opens up, a family submits paperwork to the state. Regulators are supposed to decide whether they’re eligible within three months, during which families can receive temporary vouchers for subsidized care. Because of the prolonged waits, however, the state extended the temporary voucher period to five months. But many families are waiting even longer — some for an initial review, others for an appeal of a denied claim.
Child-care providers say the state has advised them to terminate any families awaiting a decision after five months, because the state won’t reimburse them if they keep the family longer.
“This forces the hand of providers to have to end care for these families, despite the fact that the decision is completely out of our control,” said Sharon MacDonald, deputy director at Guild of St. Agnes, a Worcester nonprofit agency that serves about 1,600 children.
MacDonald said child-care centers have been loath to cut kids off from care, especially those the providers feel will eventually be deemed eligible for the subsidy, and some have instead used donations or other funds to subsidize families.
The Department of Early Education and Care said in a statement that Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy is aware of the problems. She is planning a sweeping review of all the regulations to address the issues, the statement said, and is focused on alleviating the backlog.
“EEC is committed to examining these regulations and their processes to identify and employ improvements for families seeking child care,” the statement said.
The department said it lost half of its staff charged with reviewing cases — now there are just two people doing the work — but intends to hire two staffers by mid-March. The department said its rules changes last year were made in large part to comply with federal regulations and also to root out families that aren’t eligible.
The new rules have also limited the ability of parents who claim they can’t work because of a disability to appeal if they’re denied a subsidized care voucher. That’s put parents like Jessica, a 38-year-old Webster mother, in a bind. She asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy.
The stabbing pins and needles and numbness in Jessica’s arms and legs are so acute many nights, she can’t sleep. Her nerve condition, in addition to bipolar and post traumatic stress disorders, qualified her for about $10,000 a year in federal disability assistance, after Social Security officials deemed her unable to work.
But state regulators recently disagreed that she was disabled and denied her request for a subsidized child-care voucher for her 3-year-old daughter, a benefit that advocates said her Social Security designation should have entitled her to receive.
“I’ve run out of options for child care,” said Jessica. “It’s crazy … I am just denied with no right of appeal.”
The state requires nondisabled low-income parents to be working, looking for work, or enrolled in school in order to receive a subsidy. But administrators waive that requirement for those they deem disabled.
Jessica said she’s doing her best to keep her active daughter occupied since she abruptly lost child care days after Christmas. The youngster received subsidized care for five months while the family awaited the state’s decision. But under the new rules she was not entitled to a 30-day grace period once the state ruled her ineligible.
Now Jessica and her daughter, who live in a subsidized apartment, often spend time at the library. But the little girl has seemed emotionally raw since being cut from care; Jessica worries she’s not getting enough stimulation and will fall behind her friends from school.
“She was there one day and the next day she couldn’t go back,” Jessica said. “She was so confused. She kept asking, ‘Did I do something wrong?’”
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.