BUILDing Strong Foundations

Who’s Caring for our Babies? New Jersey’s Dire Need to Provide Quality Infant and Toddler Care

8/20/2018 12:00:00 AM
Posted by: Build Initiative

The new Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funding represents an enormous opportunity to improve access to and quality of child care for infants, toddlers, their families, and the teachers and programs that work with them. With funding from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a project of the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation, the BUILD Initiative is organizing a series of webinars and blogs in partnership with ZERO TO THREE and the Center for Law and Social Policy for state policy leaders, decision makers and advocates. Information on the series, including blogs, webinar registration, archives, and CCDBG resources can be found here.

By Ceil Zalkind, President and Chief Executive Officer, Advocates for Children of New Jersey 

At Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), we are strong advocates for New Jersey’s preschool program and have been instrumental in its development and implementation. But we are also well-aware that an infant-toddler agenda must be advanced concurrent with our preschool expansion goal. Given what we know about brain development and the importance of the early years, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for preschool to be fully in place before we start working to ensure that all children zero to three receive quality care. Now is the time to have this conversation and to advance an agenda for babies. Child Care Development and Block Grant (CCDBG) funds should be used for this purpose.  Our strategy has two main thrusts: changing the mindset and securing more resources.

Step One: Change the Mindset

The journey to providing quality child care for babies begins by altering the way we think about it. We did that as a state, and a country, with regard to preschool. People came to understand that preschool provides education - an opportunity to get children started on a pathway to school success. Child care—and especially child care for infants and toddlers-- must be thought of in the same way. Child care is where babies are being educated outside of the family. That’s why quality is so important.

It is particularly important to make the case that quality child care is an investment in education with regard to families who qualify for child care assistance. It is difficult for these families to find any child care for their babies, much less a high-quality educational program. But the truth is, all parents in New Jersey struggle to find quality child care for their babies. A series of focus groups we conducted in low-income as well as more moderate- and upper-income communities yielded the same stories: it’s far worse for families who can’t afford child care but it’s difficult across the board to find quality care for babies.

Step Two: Increase the Reimbursement Rate

We examined the lack of funding for child care assistance and learned that New Jersey providers who accept children in subsidized care waited 10 years for an increase in the subsidy rate, receiving only a small increase this year. In the spring of 2017, we worked with Anne Mitchell on a cost-of-quality study to get a sense of what improving the quality of care would actually mean. We followed this study up with a report on the capacity of care for babies. The process was an eye-opener on several levels.

The lack of infant care became dramatically apparent. There are communities in our state that don’t have any licensed care for babies. In fact, we found there are spaces in licensed child care centers for only 27 percent of all babies with parents in the workforce. We aimed to call attention to this shocking statistic – this crisis for babies – and to get the state to invest in increasing the reimbursement rate for programs that accept babies. We raised the issue during our gubernatorial election last year and as part of the new governor’s transition process and we’ve been meeting with legislators to call attention to child care deserts across the state, all the time raising the question, Who’s caring for our babies?

Our budget this year was generous on many levels: we got a huge increase for preschool, our governor laid out priorities for working families, and he created our first child care tax credit. But no investment was made in subsidized child care, which means we are leaving infants and toddlers further behind. We plan to redouble our efforts, to take a first step at addressing the lack of funding for child care by focusing specifically on babies.

Our Results to Date

Through our research and reports last year, which we disseminated widely and used when meeting with state leaders, two things happened. The first was that in the last two weeks Governor Christie was in office, he increased the child care reimbursement rate overall by $13 million. It’s not anywhere near what we need but it was a good first step and included changes in policy. First, it decoupled the infant rate from the toddler rate so there are two different standards – one for children from birth to 18 months and another for children from 18 months to three years. This decoupling, with a higher increase going to the infant rate, turned out to amount to pennies a day - but it signaled a positive policy direction.

The second thing that changed was that, for the first time, the state agreed to a tiered reimbursement rate for programs that improve quality under our Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). Rates will be the highest for programs that provide care for babies; those that achieve a 5-Star rating will get a 24 percent increase, which is significant.

Raising Awareness was Key

We are fortunate that our new commissioner of human services, Carole Johnson, is interested in child care. She has convened a broader process, beyond her department, to talk about child care priorities and the additional CCDBG funds, of which New Jersey stands to get $38 million. We have talked about the need to invest both in improved access and quality of infant care. I haven’t seen a final plan yet but the fact that we’re talking about it is amazing! Although our advocacy during this year’s budget process with the governor’s office and legislators about the need to increase the infant rate did not result in an increase in the FY 2019 budget, the importance of our shining a spotlight on New Jersey’s baby crisis must be underscored. People responded to our dramatic community-level data about the lack of licensed care for babies. Our effort to raise awareness paid off.

Now we are regrouping and seeing where we want to go next. One possibility is to promote an initiative that focuses on communities with the greatest need and develops access to quality programs for babies in those communities. I’m very interested in learning what other states have done in this regard. The additional CCDBG funds could be seed money for an approach which combines contracting, on-site eligibility, improved rates, connections to quality through the QRIS, and targeted communities with high needs for infant toddler child care.

Also on our Agenda: Regulating Family Child Care

We have a very weak regulatory system in New Jersey with regard to Family Child Care (FCC). Registration in the system currently is voluntary. Right now, the majority of FCC homes that are registered are those that accept children with child care assistance because that is the requirement for accepting subsidy. We need to work with the state to create incentives for programs to be registered. The importance of this point cannot be understated.

Where are babies receiving care? Our strong sense is that they are in unregulated child care. An effort must be undertaken to set up a regulatory system that isn’t necessarily restrictive - but that incentivizes programs to participate and makes it affordable for them.

Moving Ahead

New Jersey still faces challenges ahead in improving access to quality care for infants and toddlers, but I believe that our efforts on their behalf thus far have brought us to a turning point. It’s very exciting to be part of a new movement to broaden the agenda to look at a birth-to-five plan. It’s a national movement that has only just begun.


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