Child-care funds in limbo

Legal action halts funding cuts—too late for some

Candi Marsicano and her two sons moved out of a home and into an apartment to ensure she could afford child care on her own.

Candi Marsicano and her two sons moved out of a home and into an apartment to ensure she could afford child care on her own.

Photo By Andrea LaVoy Wagner

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Amid election campaigns that hyped saving jobs, Oroville resident Cynthia Ceas lost hers. After nearly three years as a hotel front-desk clerk, she spent her last day of work on Oct. 31. A single mother of two boys, Ceas is among the 350 parents in Butte County who were forced to scramble through tough decisions last month, when their child-care funding was cut from the state budget.

Since then, Alameda Superior Court Judge Wynne Carvill has issued an order that effectively halted those cuts and also mandated that the state Department of Education notify parents that they can be screened for eligibility for other programs.

Carvill’s order leaves Butte County administrators and parents in limbo.

“It’s a big question mark,” said Karen Marlatt, executive director of Valley Oak Children’s Services.

Valley Oak has been mandated to continue to provide services until it is officially ordered to stop. But no one knows where the money will come from, Marlatt said. After a conference with representatives of the Department of Education, the only thing clear is that services will continue. Having services cut and then started again through a court order has never happened before, Marlatt said.

But for Ceas, who lost her job before any suit was filed, the damage has already been done. No child-care funds meant she could no longer work. “It’s a disaster for me,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Affected parents are those in the Stage 3 program, the final step toward self-sufficiency under CalWORKs, the state’s welfare-to-work program. The program, begun in 1997, offers recipients assistance in work training, education, child care and job seeking. Stage 3 parents have been off of cash assistance for two years or more but still need child-care assistance. This affects some 55,000 children statewide (640 in Butte County).

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used a line-item veto to slash Stage 3 (a total of $256 million) from the budget after it was finally passed in mid-October. This left parents until November, less than three weeks, to consider the options: find a way to pay for child care, find alternate care (which doesn’t always mean the most qualified or suitable care), or quit working.

Ceas was heartbroken when she found out the news from her child-care provider. “I cried for two whole days,” she said.

“I cried at my son’s school, and I went to work crying. I want the best for my kids.”

When she was unable to find a way to pay for child care and still work evenings, she geared up for unemployment. “My kids are my pride and joy,” Ceas said. “I struggle to have them grow up to be productive citizens.”

Ceas’ living-room wall is chock full of framed photos of her sons. “He’s a straight-A student,” Ceas beamed during a recent interview. She reached across and tousled her 12-year-old’s Justin Beiber-like hair. He chatted about basketball practice and just how long his bangs should be.

For now, Ceas has filed for unemployment, but “the absolute worst part” is that her younger son may also lose his spot in Head Start preschool because she is no longer employed, she said.

Candi Marsicano, another Stage 3 parent, a single working mother of two children with special needs, did everything she was supposed to do by using all the public programs the way they were intended, she said.

She lived at the Esplanade House, a transitional-housing program, when her two sons were very young. Now, she works for the Esplanade House, which is a program of the Community Action Agency of Butte County. She’s been off of cash aid for more than five years.

Marsicano says she looks at the funding cuts as a personal attack on her and others who have worked hard to get to where they are. She fears going back to a lifestyle she left behind. “Some people haven’t been through what I went through—homelessness, drugs—but that’s where my mind went instantly,” she said.

Instead of giving up, however, she decided to take action.

Within two weeks, Marsicano found an apartment and a new child-care provider who would work with her on payments, and moved out of her two-story, three-bedroom house. “It was very, very scary,” she said. But in order to pay the minimum rate of $240 per month she’d negotiated for child care for one of her sons, she had to compensate.

“I did what I have to do to take care of my family,” she said.

Although there hasn’t been much time to process things, Marsicano is optimistic. The current halt in the courts has put her ahead, for now. She strongly hopes that the Stage 3 funding will be reinstated in January when Governor-elect Jerry Brown takes office.

Amid the crowd gathered for Brown’s recent visit to Chico, Becky Morales, a local leader for the advocacy group Parent Voices, says she implored Brown to reinstate child-care funds.

Although Morales, who is attending Butte College and working, is not yet at Stage 3 level, she aims to be a voice for those who are. Welfare is a shame-based process, and it creates a stigma that needs to be changed, she said. “I’ve never met an individual that sits at home not wanting to better their lives,” Morales said. “They may exist, but they’re not the majority.”

Parent Voices activists have been staging vigils and protests locally and in Sacramento. Oakland members are behind the lawsuit in Alameda County that has halted the funding cuts. Judge Carvill has scheduled a hearing on the case for Nov. 23.

“If this option isn’t available, you’re eliminating all hope,” Morales said. Having the Stage 3 option creates a safety net, permission to achieve things, she said.

That safety net has resulted in numerous success stories.

One of them is Shelly Thomson, who has been called a “poster child” for the program. A single mother of four children, Thomson started on the CalWORKs program in its infancy, more than 11 years ago. As a young mother, she knew no other way than to turn to the welfare system, she said. She’d grown up in poverty.

However, she wanted a new way of life for her children.

“As a kid, I was home alone at 9, but I wouldn’t do that to my kids,” Thomson said. “Just because I was doing it, it doesn’t mean it was good for me to be doing it.”

Thomson made it through training to be a teacher. After graduation she commuted four hours a day on city buses from Oroville to Paradise, spending 10 hours to work six hours for $6.25 an hour, and her monthly pay was still less than her welfare grant money.

Now, Thomson is a family support specialist for Valley Oak, and has been off of aid for eight years. In the beginning, CalWORKs funded her child care.

“If it was taken away, I don’t know where I would have ended up.”