Voices for children

Butte County parents team with Valley Oak Children’s Services to work on bringing quality child care to those in need

STAND UP Child care provider Rebecca Mattox, left, and fellow advocate Irene Felio were two of the hundreds of supporters who turned up at the State Capitol for Parent Voices’ “Stand for Kids” rally.

STAND UP Child care provider Rebecca Mattox, left, and fellow advocate Irene Felio were two of the hundreds of supporters who turned up at the State Capitol for Parent Voices’ “Stand for Kids” rally.

Courtesy of Valley Oak Children's Services

Low blow: According to the 2001 California Child Care Portfolio, which is put out by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, Butte County already ranks as having the 13th-highest rate of child poverty among the state’s 58 counties. Caring for a child here takes up nearly 50 percent of a full-time minimum wage income.

Four-year-old Terra is lucky she has a mom who fights the system.

Her mother is Butte County resident Carol Bear, 42, an articulate woman with strong opinions who holds two associate of arts degrees and is currently working toward a bachelor’s in business and management information systems at Chico State. With the degree, Bear, a self-proclaimed “people person,” intends to build her own company and work more within the public arena of the business world.

But right now she has to focus most of her energy on the dueling forces of raising a young daughter and finding stable work, something she has been unable to do since her child’s birth. Like many other single mothers in Butte County, Bear is a recipient of government-subsidized child care, funds that have provided the opportunity for her to leave her daughter at a caring facility while she works to make a living.

And, like so many others, Bear’s care options are jeopardized as welfare reform advocates in the state and federal government put forth proposals that would drastically lower the budget for federal- and state-subsidized child care.

Bear is not taking this sitting down. She and others who would be affected by the proposals—parents, childcare providers, caseworkers, etc.—have formed an alliance with Valley Oak Children’s Services (VOCS), a state-funded child care resource and referral agency, and created a parent advocacy group that seeks to promote adequate child care for all families.

Inde Bryant, a caseworker with VOCS, has organized the group as a means to combat legislative actions that would decrease funding for welfare and child care. The advocacy group, she hopes, will soon become an official branch of Parent Voices, a statewide, grass-roots organization dedicated to speaking out on such issues.

The local group joined Parent Voices in a rally on May 29 at the State Capitol in Sacramento to represent Butte County in the push for a more reasonable welfare-to-work program and child care subsidies.

The previous month, the advocates proved they could bring about change, when Gov. Gray Davis withdrew elements of his 2002-03 budget proposal that would have funneled less money to child care providers and required even the poorest families to pay fees. Ultimately, he restored the funding level to what it was last year—although inflation will bite off some of it. VOCS alone got back $1 million it had lost under the original plan.

“He changed his mind after he heard from all of the parents,” Bryant says. “It really had an impact. … These parents are actually being heard. They’re actually changing the minds of legislators and the governor.”

But the victory is temporary. This is an election year for Davis; next year will see another go at revamping child care funding. “After next year, we’re going to have to go fight for it again,” Bryant says.

Even though Temporary Aid to Needy Families (the welfare program) and child care subsidy funds that aren’t tied to welfare originate with the federal government, the states have some discretion on how to spend the money. For example, Davis originally wanted to cut TANF clients off after two years rather than five, eliminating Stage 3 of the program that had allowed parents a smoother transition to full-time work.

Meanwhile, affordable-child-care advocates are fighting proposals at the federal level, including a plan backed by Wally Herger, R-Marysville, to increase work requirements from 32 to 40 hours a week for TANF recipients but without also passing along more money for child care.

Bryant, and those advocates behind her, stresses the impact these trends would have on Butte County alone. “It [will affect] everyone who pays taxes, every parent who utilizes child care, every employer who needs employees, every child care provider throughout the nation and all of the children,” Bryant says.

By subsidizing child care, she says, society is creating not only a safe place for its children to go while their parents are at work, but is also employing a growing number of child care providers who would be left to filter back through the welfare system if left without work.

And without places to leave their children, the group emphasizes, parents will be forced to quit their jobs in order to stay at home and take care of their kids, again leaving many of them to circle back through the cycle of dependency.

Advocates also point to studies indicating that for every dollar spent on early-intervention child care, seven can be expected to return to taxpayers in savings from areas like detention services, unemployment and even welfare.

Bryant, as well as coworker Lana Hillips of VOCS’ Resource and Referral Department, is adamant about the fact that children come first.

On May 29, the two women were among the small group of parent advocates representing Butte County at the State Capitol. All told, hundreds of Parent Voices members in need of affordable child care rallied to urge legislators and the public to stay aware of these issues.

During the day, they met with state staff members and representatives for senators and congressmen.

The previous month, they had taken hundreds of small, homemade cards, each adorned with the picture of a smiling Valley Oak child in need and inscribed with the financial statistics of the family. Bryant believes this approach is what helped put a face on child care needs and sway the governor.

The group is getting more active locally and plans to hold a rally in September in Chico. Making its presence known wherever possible, Bryant explains, will “at least give [people] information that they’re just not getting.”

She points out, though, that the local group is in its fledgling stages and great things can be expected from its members in the years to come. Hillips adds, “We’ve been out there and we’re doing it, and we’re doing it as parents and as advocates.”

The Butte County child care advocates won’t be “out there” as an official charter of Parent Voices until they meet the requirements of the national organization, which include having a paid position to head up the group. Bryant says Valley Oak is currently working on writing a grant that would provide the funds for such a venture.

As for Bear, she agrees with Bryant in wanting to provide the general public, as well as elected officials, with information about the potential effects of child care reform. “I see a confusion in the public, in that child care and welfare are always linked,” she says.

She expresses anger at the fact that most commonly child care “rides piggyback” on the welfare budget proposals, so people associate child care needs with being needy. As Bear illustrates, fully employed parents and students need help for their children too.

So Bear hopes that Butte County can push its way to the top and provide that essential voice for every child in this county. "There’s not a man or woman out there who doesn’t leave their kids with someone [while they go to work]. Chico is definitely a prime example of working class parents who need child care."