Staying in school

Teen mothers push for law change on child support

Students from Florence Crittenton High School listen to state Sen. Mike Johnston as Sen. Larry Crowder stands by.

Right now, if you’re a teen mom in Colorado, there’s a good chance you have to clear a big hurdle to get state financial help to pay for childcare: That is, going to court to seek child support from your son or daughter’s father.

More than a dozen high school students—teen mothers from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School—visited the Capitol  building Tuesday to press for a law change that would eliminate that requirement for teen parents as well as domestic violence victims.

During a lunch break in a third-floor hallway, the students made their case to lawmakers passing by on the way to nearby meetings. Pausing in the middle of the hallway with briefcases or thick binders in hand, a couple legislators asked the girls to explain House Bill 1227.

In a quiet, halting voice, one student did just that.

The soft-spoken pitch to lawmakers wasn’t meant to benefit the girls lining the Capitol hallway. As Florence Crittenton students, they’re already exempt from the child support requirement because of an unusual one-time waiver granted to the school by the state a few years ago.

What the girls and their supporters wanted was to change the rules for their “sisters”—other teen parents who live in the 46 Colorado counties that have chosen to enforce the child support provision before handing out dollars from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP.

Proponents say the measure, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing March 18, would remove an intimidating obstacle that’s limiting access to childcare and forcing teen moms to drop out of school.

This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining the CCCAP program.
This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining  CCCAP.

“You’re trying to get a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old to navigate a system that’s already difficult,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of Florence Crittenton Services.

But some counties are pushing back against the bill in its current form, arguing that child support requirements can help families stay intact and set the stage for long-term financial support from non-custodial parents.

Pat Ratliffe, a lobbyist for the membership organization Colorado Counties Inc., said the counties she represents want to amend the bill to provide a shorter period of exemption from child support rules. The group hasn’t decided yet whether that narrower exemption should last a year, be tied to a grade-level milestone or something else.

“We’re trying to find our way through a foggy situation and do not only what’s best for the mom but do what’s best for the child and the family unit,” she said.

It’s not about the money

Opponents of HB 1227 say the purpose of enforcing the child support requirement for teen moms is not the money. Both sides agree that young fathers, especially if they’re still in school themselves, won’t have much to give.

“We don’t expect to collect money from these kids,” said Ratliff.

But she said going through the child support process is the “most obvious and most logical way to keep a father involved.”

Resources

She said when the mother names the father in court, it triggers various county services that promote the father’s involvement.

But supporters of the bill refute that, saying the policy’s not working. They say only about 2 percent of the 10,000 children of teen parents in Colorado have open child support cases, meaning the vast majority of young mothers aren’t seeking child support and whatever family reunification benefits come with it.

“The counties act as if they are so good at working with the dad and the mom…and that is just not true,” said Banning.

The teen’s experience

Between remarks by passing lawmakers on Tuesday, ninth-grader Gemini Leroy talked about the challenges she faced getting child care assistance even without a mandate to seek child support first.

Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.
Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.

“I just had a problem with CCCAP in general,” said the 15-year-old.

She said she’d re-submitted the paperwork twice, and finally obtained childcare assistance for her 14-month-old baby Starla after about seven months.

Leroy, who hopes to join the Army when she finishes high school, said with Starla’s father set to go to prison this spring, she’s not sure how she’d seek child support from him if it was required.

“It would be hard,” she said.

Even for teenage mothers who have a good relationship with their child’s father, the child support requirement can be feel like treading on thin ice.

Linda Becerra, a 10th-grader at Florence Crittenton, said she’d worry about how her daughter’s father would react, especially because he’s an undocumented immigrant.

“I think that he would take that as me being aggressive toward him,” she said. “The last thing I need is for us to have a bad relationship…I want to have good co-parenting.”

Right now, the father contributes financially to six-month-old Ebony, visits her on weekdays and cares for her on the weekend, said Becerra, who hopes to pursue a career in art or architecture.

A challenge to local control

Staff at Florence Crittenton, which enrolls students from multiple counties, began noticing several years ago that students were losing CCCAP money after failing to seek child support. School leaders subsequently negotiated a waiver from the rule with an official at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

That waiver, however, became a sore spot for some county leaders, who believed the state had interfered with local control.

“I think Florence Crittenton had a very good argument about why it makes sense,” said Erin Mewhinney, who last summer became director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state’s human services department.

A Florence Crittenton student listens to a legislator in a hearing room.
Florence Crittenton students listen to a legislator in a hearing room.

Still, she said, “I don’t think it’s good policy to waive a policy for one provider…It should have been looked at as a larger policy issue.”

For that reason, Mewhinney said she declined New Legacy Charter School’s request for the same kind of waiver. The Aurora school, which opened last fall, serves pregnant and parenting teens.

There is another kind of waiver—a “good cause” waiver—that counties can grant on a case-by-case basis so women don’t have to go through the child support process. But supporters of HB 16-1227 say it’s inconsistently applied and out of reach for many domestic violence victims who don’t have the right records to prove the abuse.

Even if the proposed legislation passes, Mewhinney said a state task force will continue to look at the barriers that prevent teen mothers from accessing child care assistance. The problem may not be the child support requirement.

“We’re still not absolutely sure that’s why teen parents opt out,” she said.

Cultivating supporters

For a slow day at the Capitol—many lawmakers had already left to attend caucuses in their home districts later that day—the Florence Crittenton students found a receptive audience Tuesday.

When one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, stopped by to introduce himself, he praised the measure.

“Personally, I think it’s overdue. I think it should have been done years ago.”

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, told the girls she planned to add her name to the sponsor list, which currently numbers 38.

When Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, learned of the bill as he walked by, he said he’d be happy to support it. Then, the former principal gave a brief pep talk about the impact of a mother’s education on her child’s future.

“Your investment in your degree is the single best thing you can give them,” he said.

 

Nearing the finish line

New preschool compromise plan would add 15 counties, expand voucher access

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

Lawmakers have arrived at a tentative compromise for how to expand Indiana’s preschool program, and it includes controversial proposals to expand vouchers and online learning.

Under the compromise plan, 15 additional counties would be included in the state’s preschool program — up to 20 from the current five. The cost of the expansion will likely be unclear until early Friday, but House Speaker Brian Bosma said it will be closer to the $10 million per year increase called for by the House than to the $4 million increase proposed by the Senate.

This year’s debate over preschool has been heated. Bosma and other Republican leaders, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, have come out strongly for expansion, while others, notably Senate Appropriations chairman Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville, have been more skeptical of spending money on a program still being studied by the state.

For many Democrats, the two Republican plans don’t add nearly enough money for early education. Preschool advocates, who have lobbied for spending $50 million per year, tend to agree.

None of the counties in the existing preschool program — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh — would receive less funding than they did last year unless the number of students or preschool providers have decreased significantly. But going forward, rural counties would be prioritized, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author.

To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four still couldn’t earn more than $30,861. But in the original five counties only, families of four making up to $44,863 could apply if all the lower-income families who were interested already received grants and there was funding left over.

Controversial language allowing a new voucher “pathway” remains in the bill, but in a more limited fashion, Behning said. If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at that same school. Behning said about 171 kids now attend 24 voucher-accepting schools with preschool programs, and of those, just six kids would be eligible to continue with a voucher for kindergarten.

The plan also includes specific requirements for parents receiving vouchers, including how often their children will attend preschool and that they will read to their children every week. It’s not clear how such measures would be enforced, but parents would have to agree before they could get a preschool scholarship.

The compromise plan would also allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. The state would agree to study these online programs, and priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers.

The compromise proposal still must receive final approval from the House and the Senate, which is expected later this week.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.