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Searching for solutions to Missoula’s childcare crisis

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Esther and Beau McBryde have a 1-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to care for. When their son, Alistair, was an infant, they tried alternating their work schedules, with Beau working nights at Harlow’s Truck Center and Esther working days as a social worker at Community Medical Center, but they couldn’t make it work. They found a home daycare where Alistair stayed a few days a week while they offset their work schedules to cover the other days. More than a year later, when their job schedules changed, they enrolled Alistair at Origins Education Preschool, a Missoula childcare center for infants to 5-year-olds, where he stayed until last fall, when he started kindergarten.

Their daughter, Aila, was born prematurely. Because her immune system wasn’t well developed and she required oxygen for her first two months, finding care was more complicated. A friend was able to watch Aila in the McBrydes’ home a few days each week while Esther and Beau juggled their schedules to cover the other days. But their friend can no longer watch Aila.

Aila has been on the waiting list at Origins for more than 18 months, ever since Esther found out she was pregnant. Origins has an opening in July, but Origins has expanded its infant-care facility since Alistair was there, and Esther isn’t sure a larger center is right for their daughter. Because Aila’s immune system is still developing and she shows signs of other developmental delays, Esther says, she would prefer a home-based center, or a caregiver who can come to the McBrydes’ home.

So Esther and Beau looked into the Big Sky Nanny agency, but they didn’t have the $935 in up-front application, consultation and placement fees. Hourly rates for a nanny run $12 to $15 per hour. At three days a week, the cost for a nanny is far more than the $50 per day that infant and toddler care costs at Origins, and even that $50 per day is $10 more than they paid for Alistair’s care at Origins just a couple of years ago.

Susanne Torpey, the owner of Big Sky Nanny, estimates she has placed 15 to 20 nannies over the last five years who are still caring for infants. She says it’s common for parents to have another baby during a nanny’s placement, and those nannies often stay on. Torpey matches nannies and parents who share parenting ideals, but she says it’s a challenge, and can take several weeks to find the right fit.

Esther says such limited choices and high prices can force parents to place their young children where they don’t know individual care providers personally, or what kind of care they provide. It’s impossible to know all the people working in the bigger centers. “We want someone with experience to watch our children, because the formative years are so important,” Esther says. “The meth thing at the YMCA Learning Center is frightening, because I had considered it after hearing such good things about it.”

In April, an employee of the YMCA Learning Center who worked with infants from 6 weeks to 18 months old was suspected of using meth at work. She was charged with drug possession, criminal mischief and endangering the welfare of a child. She pleaded not guilty to all three charges and was released from jail. An omnibus hearing is scheduled for June 19. The center closed in April for contamination testing and has remained closed during clean-up efforts after low levels of contamination were found. The center hopes to reopen by mid-July. The closure has affected the families of 74 children from infancy through pre-school.

Origins still doesn’t have a part-time opening for the days the McBrydes need help with Aila, but they were finally able to find a private nanny who was able to start at the end of May.

A forty-something single mother with a toddler in tow addressed a group of people during a community conversation sponsored by the progressive activist group Missoula Rises at the Summit Independent Living community center in Missoula on April 2. “We have amazing pre-schools here in Missoula,” Caroline Temple said, “but infant care remains in crisis. It’s a mutual sacrifice when childcare providers are underpaid and parents can’t afford to pay them.”

Temple opened Whole Child Missoula when she was pregnant with her first son in 1996. Providing in-home daycare was her best option as a single parent to provide her son with the care she wanted him to have while being able to make a living. Today, she cares for infants to 3-year-olds, which allows her to stay home and care for her youngest son, Anam.


Caroline Temple opened Whole Child Missoula when she was pregnant with her first son in 1996. Today, she cares for infants to 3-year-olds, which allows her to stay home and care for her youngest son, Anam.

Temple receives tearful phone calls almost every week from discouraged and overwhelmed parents looking for someone to help care for their infants. She often suggests they hire a student of early-childhood education to work in their home, and share the care and cost with another family.

“It is difficult to survive financially providing infant care in Missoula,” she said. “I have to work two jobs.” With a degree in social work focused on early-childhood education, a master’s degree in counseling psychology focused on children and two fellowships in neurodevelopmental disabilities, Temple is a rarity among childcare providers. She charges $899 per month, while other in-home infant/toddler care providers charge as much as $50 per day.

For young parents, paying for childcare is like paying a mortgage. Caring for three infants plus her own toddler son allows Temple to stay within the 4:1 child/provider ratio set by Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services to ensure a high-quality childcare environment and positive caregiving. Even so, by providing full-time in-home daycare, her earning potential as a parenting counselor is limited.

Child Care Aware of America (CCAA), a nonprofit childcare advocacy organization, publishes annual fact sheets on each state showing the average annual income for childcare workers. In Montana, childcare workers make an average of $20,760, compared to Wyoming at $23,630, Oregon at $24,460 and Washington at $25,610. The report shows that many childcare staffers can’t afford to enroll their own children in daycare. The 2017 Montana Market Rate survey shows a high percentage of turnover in the childcare workforce, 14.2 percent on average per quarter, compared to 10.2 percent for all other Montana industries combined.

In 2017, CCAA reported that low-income families in Montana spend more than half their income on childcare expenses. For a family of four with two children, “low income” is federally defined as anything under $50,200. The 2016 U.S. Census shows the median household income in Montana is $48,380.

The same report states that Montana is home to 60,693 children under the age of 4, and 45,764 of those children potentially require daycare. According to the report, Montana has only 18,529 daycare spaces available, leaving more than 27,000 children without access to daycare.


The U.S. Census Bureau’s July 2017 report shows the population of Missoula as 72,364. Children age 3 and under account for about 2,769 Missoulians. Emma Young, of Missoula nonprofit Child Care Resources, says the Montana DPHHS Regional Provider Workforce Report of March 1, 2018, shows there are 102 licensed childcare providers for children of all ages in Missoula. While state regulations allow four infants for each licensed care provider, not all providers accept that many. The 2017 Montana Market Rate survey shows that approximately 37 percent of licensed programs in Montana have waiting lists for full-time infant slots. And not all providers provide infant care.

In 2017, Montana’s Early Childhood Services Bureau formed the MT Infant Toddler Workgroup to gather data and seek solutions to Montana’s lack of infant and toddler care and the associated financial burden for parents. According to the workgroup’s preliminary findings report, “It is very clear there is a need for increased infant/toddler slots in quality childcare settings.”

Words spill out of 3-year-old Anam’s mouth as he tells his mom how Mr. Mouse helped a fireman put out a fire. With widening eyes, he tells her about his little friend who cried because he was afraid of the fire in the storybook a neighbor read to them. Taking his mom by the hand, he leads her to another book he wants her to read, another world to explore. Anam is tired, but it’s hard for him to stop. With a brain on full-tilt all the time, he has trouble sleeping. Temple had him assessed by a national expert on children’s sleep disorders and intelligence. Anam’s evaluation revealed signs of extreme intelligence. Temple wants him to go to a school where he will be stimulated and encouraged creatively, so she has him on a waiting list for a Waldorf charter school in Ashland, Oregon, when he turns 5. She is considering leaving Missoula to make more money to pay for the kind of education she wants her son to have.

Temple’s focus on early-childhood care stems from her knowledge about attachment and early brain development. She offers attachment-based childcare and takes in children with needs that other childcare providers turn away. Temple says her work is based on the brain development that occurs from age 0–5, when children are developing neural pathways that evolve into super-highways. She stresses the importance of infant and early-childhood care because these neural pathways become the foundations on which people build the rest of their lives. “One of the most important things we can ever do for anyone is provide them with an optimal environment for development,” she says.


The Associated Students of the University of Montana’s Child Care program, directed by Vicki Olson, has an infant-care waiting list for both faculty and students, with at least 20 families on each list.

In an economy in which both parents often work, the amount of time that a care provider spends with a child can amount to the majority of the child’s waking life. Temple believes the U.S. struggles with infant and toddler care at a policy level because there isn’t enough value placed on those who care for infants. She would like to see the general population better educated about childhood development, and care providers better trained about attachment issues.

“Understanding attachment is one thing, but having to deal with it in stressful situations is difficult,” Temple said. “Contrary to popular belief, taking care of infants is really hard.”

Not long ago, Montana was one of a handful of states that hadn’t yet invested in early-childhood education, but in 2017, Gov. Steve Bullock began closing the gap by securing funding for Montana preschools through the federal Childcare Development Block Grant and the Montana General Fund. The state’s STARS to Quality Program provides funding to quality daycares and preschools, and provides childcare scholarships for qualified low-income families. “If we take care of our kids and give them high-quality early childhood experiences, we set the stage for their success in school and in life,” the governor said in a press release earlier this year.

Jamie Palagie, Department of Public Health and Human Services division administrator, says the STARS to Quality Program requires participating childcare providers to dedicate 10–15 percent of their enrollment slots to children determined to have high needs. High-needs children include infants and toddlers from 0 to 19 months, children with mental health issues and special health-care needs, children of teen parents, migrant families, homeless families and enrolled tribal members.

Palagie says she hopes increased childcare provider participation in STARS to Quality will offset some of the cost burdens imposed by the 4:1 ratio of infant/toddler care. “I realize that’s not a stellar answer,” she says. “But we continue to look at these challenges facing families and childcare businesses alike, hoping to identify other strategies.”

Patty Butler, Montana’s Early Childhood Services Bureau Chief, is part of DPHHS’ Infant Toddler Workgroup. “There is not enough space for infants and toddlers in Montana for working parents,” she says. The workgroup is identifying issues and shaping policy to support providers so they can continue to expand services.

After six months of gathering data, the workgroup developed the Montana Infant Toddler Data Report. Preliminary findings were published in the DPHHS Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) Plan for Montana 2019–2021. They show that Montana has only 5,125 slots available in licensed childcare, yet about 37,000 children under the age of 3. This set of data, combined with the Market Rate Survey of 2017, is informing DPHHS as it makes administrative policy decisions it hopes to have in place as soon as July 1.

The STARS to Quality Best Beginnings childcare scholarship serves qualified low-income families during work or school hours and teen parents attending high school. Qualifying parents are required to make a small copayment, and the Best Beginnings program reimburses the childcare providers. DPHHS recently provided public notice of its intent to increase Best Beginnings provider reimbursements for the infant/toddler age group, and Butler says DPHHS was able to increase the upper age limit of the infant/toddler age group from 2 to 3 years, so the program can provide childcare assistance for more children.


Origins Education Preschool Executive Director Genevieve King says the school currently has a waiting list of 40 infants — at least two years long.

Butler says data collected in the report show that staffing, turnover and staff-replacement training are the biggest expenses for infant and toddler care providers. The STARS to Quality program provides free training for participating childcare-provider staff. Qualified providers who follow a quality-improvement plan and meet program thresholds for ongoing training, professional development, community and family involvement and licensing and administrative procedures can move up a five-point scale to earn incentives in the form of quarterly payments. Providers serving parents who receive Best Beginnings scholarships can also receive bonuses from 5 to 20 percent more than the standard reimbursement rate, depending on their tier level. Tier level also determines what percentage of the incentives can be used toward personnel costs, and what is left for expenses such as equipment and liability insurance.

Two hundred and thirty-six Montana childcare providers currently participate in the STARS program, including 31 of 102 licensed childcare providers in Missoula. Only two providers in the state have reached level 5. Butler says she doesn’t understand why some providers choose not to utilize the program, even with the added paperwork and effort of following the quality-improvement plan. “If a provider has chosen not to participate in the STARS program, they are missing a pretty serious support system that we provide for them,” Butler says.

Origins Education Preschool is working its way up the STARS scale, and is currently at level 2. Origins is one of the larger childcare facilities in Missoula, with three separate schools on its South 4th Street West campus: Infant Toddler for infants to 2 ½, Early Learners for ages 2 ½ to 3 ½, and Preschool for 3 ½ to 5. Genevieve King, Origin’s executive director, says the school currently has six children under the age of 2 and a waiting list of 40 infants — at least two years long. King says there is a shortage of infant and toddler care because it costs more to provide than most young parents can afford. Care providers, meanwhile, can’t make a profit with the 4:1 infant-to-provider ratio and the high cost of liability insurance. “At $50 per day for infant/toddler care, I don’t even break even,” King says. “I do it because it’s important to provide a quality option.”

Whole Child Missoula doesn’t participate in the Stars to Quality program. Temple thinks it is a great program, but because of the program conditions and the special-needs niche she serves, she says, it doesn’t work for her business.

Butler envisions the solution to the infant-care crisis as a joint effort among business leaders, private funders, state government and care providers. “I think it’s going to take all of us working together to provide more access that’s more affordable,” she says.

Butler thinks finding solutions to the infant-care shortage will require the help of business owners, because without childcare, parents can’t work. The Missoula Early Learning Center recently announced an expansion to make space for 150 more children. Coordinating with the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, MELC plans to work with local businesses, which will be able to reserve and help pay for childcare for their employees. Plans also include an after-hours program and in-house wellness care for children while parents are at work. According to the Harvard Business Review, some companies have been able to make childcare more accessible and less stressful for their employees by making work schedules more predictable, offering flexible hours and work locations, access to childcare Flex Spending Accounts and subsidized on-site childcare.

Erica Tranmer wrangles two infant carriers and a diaper bag with a 2 ½-year-old by her side. Just getting the door open is a challenge. Erica spent eight weeks calling childcare providers between Florence and Missoula to find someone to care for her children. Erica and her husband, Adam, live in Lolo with three children under the age of 3. Nellie Jo is 2 ½, and the twins, Emmie and Thomas, are 5 ½ months old. Erica works full-time as a nurse at Missoula Bone and Joint, and Adam is a full-time student at the University of Montana.


Yashley James opened Creative Learning Ladder in April 2017, accepting only toddler-to-preschool-age children. She soon realized the demand for more infant care in Missoula and hired another employee this spring.

UM is Missoula’s largest employer, and provides childcare for students and faculty through the Associated Students of the University of Montana. Tammy Maney, ASUM Child Care’s program assistant, says there’s currently an infant-care waiting list for both faculty and students, with at least 20 families on each list. The waiting period for infants is long because the center can serve only 12 infants at a time, and the infants currently enrolled are likely to stay until they enter preschool.

In March, Yashley James posted on Facebook announcing openings for infants beginning May 1 at Creative Learning Ladder. A friend saw the post and told Erica about it. “I couldn’t find anyone willing to take all three of my kids, and I didn’t want to split them up,” Erica says. “Yashley took on all three of my kids earlier than she wanted.”

When Nellie Jo was born, Adam began taking online courses through the university so he could be a stay-at-home dad. Now he’s in school full-time and away from home all day doing field studies and student teaching. Erica’s mom moved in to help them care for the three children, but she also works full time. The three adults juggle the children’s care, and each child spends four days at daycare each week. Erica stays home on Mondays. Tuesday through Friday, Erica and Adam both leave home early, so Erica’s mom drops the kids off at daycare in the morning, and Erica picks them up after work.

The Tranmers receive the Best Beginnings scholarships for all three children and pay CLL a small fee for each child. The total monthly copay for a family with three children, like the Tranmers, ranges from $14 to $921, based on a sliding scale tied to family size and income. Without the scholarships, the Tranmers would be paying more than $2,000 a month for childcare and, Erica says, Adam wouldn’t be able to finish school.

When James opened Creative Learning Ladder in April 2017, she accepted only toddler-to-preschool-age children. James didn’t think she would ever take on infants, but she soon realized the demand for more infant care in Missoula and hired another employee this spring. It was luck and good timing that connected the Tranmers with Creative Learning Ladder when it had openings. The center now has six infants and six toddlers. CLL accepts Best Beginnings scholarships, but James isn’t ready to take on the additional work that the STARS to Quality program requires.

James sends Erica pictures and keeps in touch throughout the day, so if one of the children is having a bad day, Erica knows about it before she picks them up. The daycare is small enough that her kids are getting the one-on-one care and attention she wants them to have.

“I was so lucky to find Yashley,” Erica says. “She is fabulous. I feel blessed to have her.”

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