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Availability of care providers a parent’s struggle

Christina Proctor and Greg Risling

Patty’s Playhouse lives up to its name. Every corner, closet and cabinet is crammed with toys, games and supplies. The back yard is a sand playground with more than $6,000 worth of castles, slides, swings and other apparatus.

There are 45 similar home child care settings on the South Shore. What makes the Playhouse unique is its business hours.

Owner Patricia Mahnke is one of the only 13 licensed home providers at the lake that offer evening and weekend child care. Off-hour providers have to deal with a sometimes emotional part of a child’s day. In an evening Mahnke might have children working on homework, one who needs a bath, and several in need of dinner.

“It’s like being a surrogate mom,” Mahnke explained. “I have to go with the flow and work around their needs.”

The demand for off-hour care is high. Fortunately, there are choices out there, but the ability to shop around is limited for parents seeking infant care. Providers cite cost effectiveness and risk factors as the main reasons they avoid infant care.

Home providers licensed for eight children can only have two infants, or children younger than 24 months, at one time. With two infants they can watch up to four preschool-age children and two have to be 6 years old or older.

“I get requests for infant care all the time,” Mahnke said. “But, I already have my maximum. I have to watch the hours and times of day I schedule people so I’m not overstepping my licensing requirements.”

The majority of requests Choices for Children, a local referral agency, receives are for special schedule care.

From personal experience Mahnke understands her clients’ odd hours. She worked for Harveys Resort Hotel/Casino for 14 years in the security department. She decided to become a licensed provider because she feared a layoff. She overhauled her house and yard, investing her time and savings in the project. Mahnke now works during the day as an administrative assistant for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

“I’ve always loved kids and I don’t think there’s anything better you can do than something that is helping children,” Mahnke said. “I have children from 5 p.m. to sometimes 6 a.m. But, then some nights when it is slow at the casinos the kids are only here for an hour or two because their parents get let off early. My income is affected by the seasonal ups and downs of the casino. It’s hard because you can’t exactly count on the money all the time.”

To combat that problem some providers and centers require contracts. Parents have to pay to save their spots whether their child is there or not.

“I understand why they do that now,” Mahnke said. “But, it’s hard for a lot of these parents. When they don’t make money, I don’t make money.”

It is those seasonal lows that put some child-care providers out of business and lessens parents’ choices.

Shirley and David Carlton ran a family home center, for 6-to-12-year-olds, for 15 years that offered evening and weekend care. They were forced to shut their doors last year.

“We couldn’t get enough kids,” David said. “It got to the point where my wife was working for a couple bucks an hour. We still get calls because we were open for a long time, but they’re for the 18-month-old range.”

Helene Hernandez is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. She has few slots for infants, but many for older children.

“A lot of my parents work at the ski ranches and casinos and those businesses really do make or break ours,” Hernandez said.

Lake Tahoe Child Development Center is the only 24-hour center in town, but they do not take infants. There is a waiting list for daytime slots, but evening care is open for children aged 3 to 12.

(subhead)

There are some parents, either not pleased with the child-care system or pressed to find a provider immediately, who bend the rules. They hire their neighbors and relatives. They hear about an unlicensed caregiver who is reasonably priced. They don’t do a background check and run the risk of possibly harming their own kids.

The cases vary from the ordinary to the extreme. There aren’t any statistics for providers not certified by the state Department of Social Services. The department requires that a license must be obtained if a provider looks after more than one child. The state also mandates training and fingerprinting prior to running a day-care facility.

One father, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he pays an older woman $100 per week to care for his two daughters, one of whom is an infant. He claims the provider isn’t registered with the state because she doesn’t want to report her earnings. She reportedly passes on the savings to the parents.

“She takes care of anywhere from two to four kids a day,” he said. “I know of other parents who do the same thing. We have complete confidence in her because she’s taken care of lots of kids before.”

There are other cases in Tahoe that skirt the licensing laws. A neighbor volunteers her free time to watch kids while a single parent goes to school. Another woman runs an after school program in her apartment complex for the children who live there. A young man baby-sits several toddlers for families on his block.

Parents will use whatever means necessary to find child care.

(subhead) Businesses explore the child care arena

Tahoe’s largest employers have yet to take the bold step forward like other companies that offer either “child care credits” on employee paychecks or, more importantly, an on-site center. Surveys sent to 1,100 businesses in El Dorado County last year by the local child care council were designed to gauge the importance of child care in the workplace. Judging by the response, it seems business owners don’t place a high priority on child care.

Only 10 percent of the surveys were returned with 14 offering child care as a benefit and one employer reimbursing families for all or part of their expenses.

It doesn’t mean, however, companies aren’t striving to make amends with their employees. Some businesses provide alternative work schedules, allocate sick leave so employees can see their children, and job sharing.

The five casinos on the South Shore have offered similar perks but discussion of on-site care stalled. Casino executives visited the idea several years ago but repeatedly ran into a brick wall by the area’s environmental mason, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The regulatory body puts strict regulations on developments in the Tahoe Basin and most of the casinos have maximized their building space. If the gambling halls were to have an on-site center, they would need to convert existing meeting rooms or office space for the new facility.

“We’re limited in our ability to create a new product,” said Kirk Ledbetter, spokesperson for Harveys. “The TRPA guidelines hinders our ability to expand our plant. There is definitely a need but it’s a service we can’t provide right now.”

Casinos also shy away from the massive costs associated with in-house care. That won’t necessarily stop the gaming industry from searching for an off-site location.

Gaming representatives have mentioned that the casinos, with the exception of Lakeside Inn, might enter a partnership whereby a nearby child-care center would assist employees with children.

On-site child care is a huge investment that can bring back major returns. Just ask Corporate Family Solutions, a national organization that manages child-care centers for 69 client companies. Based in Nashville, Tenn., the agency tailors programs and services to the employer’s desires. With much of its clientele back east, CFS does have sites in Sacramento, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

CFS Director of Communications Diane Huggins said on-site care can boost employee morale, cut down the number of sick days and improve productivity. She believes child-care centers can function efficiently in a 24-hour environment like Tahoe. Two of the company’s patrons are automobile manufacturers that employ around-the-clock care.

“There are a lot of people who are desperate for child care because they work off hours,” she said. “We work with many hospitals that keep open for extended hours. The key is, though, to find enough people who want that option so it can operate effectively.”


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