Will Colorado lawmakers save a team that helps Spanish-speaking child care providers get licensed?

Two adults care for four children at a at-home childcare and early education center. There are toys and learning tools in the background with colorful walls.
Colorado Rep. Junie Joseph, a Democrat, said she hopes her bill to establish state funding for assistance to Spanish speakers seeking child care licenses helps address the general shortage of child care. (Jupiterimages / Getty Images)

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Nehife Sanchez raised five kids as a stay-at-home mom and always helped her relatives and friends when they needed child care. Her youngest is 15, and the only child she takes care of regularly now is her granddaughter.

So when she was watching Univision with her husband one night in 2022 and saw an ad for a course to get certified in child care, she decided she was ready to take her love of caring for kids to the next level.

“Really, I always wanted to have something like this,” Sanchez said.

After taking the course, she was motivated to apply for a child care license. But Sanchez almost quit several times, not having realized all that it would require — background checks, visits to her local government office, inspections and changes to her home, buying the right materials, and taking more courses. She credits having Spanish-language help from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood with helping her persevere when, for example, she was shunted between county offices amid confusion about which one was responsible for her.

Lawmakers could soon provide more support to people like Sanchez. A bill introduced in the Colorado legislature this session is looking to keep and expand the department’s bilingual support team. The legislation’s sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Junie Joseph, said she hopes it is one small piece of a solution to the larger problem of the shortage of child care.

“We have a large population that could provide that service,” Joseph said. “But we have to make all of our community members feel supported.”

Joseph, who is bilingual herself, is sponsoring House Bill 1009 to make funding for the support permanent. If the bill is passed, the state would give the department an additional $235,000 per fiscal year to pay for the bilingual licensing unit.

Joseph says that the bill is important to her for many reasons, including as a way to increase the number of safe, quality, child care spots available across the state.

“We know this has been an underserved community,” said Carin Rosa, director of the licensing division for the department.

Sanchez said the Spanish-speaking team at the state department always answered her calls, responded to her emails, and helped her find solutions. She calls them her guardian angels.

Helping providers get licensed and avoid scams

In 2022, the early childhood department was able to hire a team of three bilingual staff members who help people through the licensing process to become licensed child care providers. The department used COVID relief money to do it. But that funding won’t be available after September.

Right now, the department says it is actively processing 25 applications for Spanish speakers, and is supporting another 69 who are already licensed but say they prefer their support in Spanish. They expect that number to grow as more people learn about their ability to access licensing.

Part of the reason for the expected increase is that in 2021, Colorado made it legal for people who can’t prove legal residency to pay for and earn certain work licenses including in childcare or education. Word has been slow to spread, and advocates say even local government employees are sometimes unaware of that new access.

Carla Colin, a program manager for the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Boulder, is supporting the bill because she believes it makes sense to help businesses.

“We don’t think language should be a barrier for a business,” Colin said. Supporting people in the language they understand “puts those in home businesses in a better position instead of working in the shadows.”

Joseph and Colin also see the bill’s purpose, and the early childhood department’s outreach to Spanish speakers, as an important part of discouraging scammers and those who overcharge and underdeliver.

Groups have popped up that claim to help Spanish speakers and those without legal status navigate the application process for professional or business licenses. But they often charge thousands of dollars, and sometimes may not actually deliver what they promise.

Colin said people sometimes call her to find out if they’re being lied to. But people often hesitate to report who the bad actors are.

Colin said she hears reports of people paying these groups more than $5,000 for a child care license.

“It’s an outrageous amount of money and especially for someone who might not be working yet,” she said.

Getting accurate information to people and support from the proper authorities is necessary, she said. She wishes the government would work more closely with teams like hers that work directly with the community.

At the early childhood department, much of the bilingual team’s first year after they were hired in 2022 was trying to get the word out. Rosa said the team has connected with some groups that work with the Latino community, translated documents, and created Spanish trainings. But the team is limited and hasn’t always been able to meet the requests for more training in the community.

Building trust and creating awareness takes time, state officials said.

If the bill is passed, one goal for the funding is to have the state’s website translated so people can find more information easily, and to do some other technology upgrades that would allow the team to carry their own caseload instead of just assisting other team members when they’re working with Spanish speakers.

Technology changes would also allow reports to be automatically generated in Spanish for Spanish-speaking providers, such as after an on-site inspection.

Rosa said the department knows Spanish speakers who apply for licenses often have had to use a child or friend who spoke English to interpret for them at on-site inspections or other meetings.

“That never felt right to us,” Rosa said.

“We really want children to have caregivers that reflect their communities, their families,” Rosa added.

A woman holds up two hand puppets while supporting a small child in a daycare room with a colorful rug and toy and book shelves in the background.
Nehife Sanchez got Spanish-language help from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood in her quest to become a licensed child care provider. (Image courtesy of Nehife Sanchez)

And if things go well, the department leaders would like to eventually add support for languages other than Spanish. For now, they’re starting by collecting data on what the preferred language is for each applicant and existing provider.

Because she primarily speaks Spanish, Sanchez was first relying on her husband, who is bilingual, to make calls for her when he was home from work, before they learned about the bilingual licensing team.

After an eight-month process that Sanchez said she was only able to complete with the bilingual team’s hand-holding — and her own persistence — , Sanchez became a licensed home care provider in August.

She’s now in the process of getting the word out and trying to recruit families. She’s hoping to have more than 10 children in her care in the next year, which might eventually allow her husband to quit his day job so they can work together at home. He’s taken the same courses as her, and they plan to keep learning together about how to help children learn.

It’s the dream, she said.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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