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New report finds the number of Michigan childcare deserts is double what state officials were quoting

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A new report from a consortium of newsrooms has found the number of childcare deserts in Michigan is double what state officials had previously reported. A childcare desert is defined as a region where at least three children are competing for every available slot at a facility.

According to the report, Arenac, Ogemaw, Alcona, Oscoda, Lake, Crawford, Luce and Leelanau counties are considered child care deserts. Rick Brewer spoke with MuckRock’s Derek Kravitz about the key issues raised in his reporting.

Click HERE to view MuckRock's county-by-county breakdown of childcare deserts.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Rick Brewer: Derek, I want to start off with understanding why the state data on child care desert was so off.

Derek: For the last 10-15 years that a lot of state agencies have been tracking daycare facilities and enrollment in licensed capacity, the metric they've been using is licensed capacity. So the highest maximum number of kids they can enroll at any given time. That's an important number, it means that this is the top most of the range that they can see. The problem with that number is, obviously, a lot of places can't enroll that many. They don't have the staff for it. They don't have the facility for it. Even though they're licensed for it doesn't mean that they can actually enroll that many kids and especially with COVID and losing staffers and all of the credentialing and staffing up issues that happen with daycare facilities. The enrollment figure is actually quite a bit lower. Michigan has been using this capacity figure for a long time but only recently with the federal pandemic relief funds. Have we been able to see the actual enrollment figures of facilities.

Rick Brewer: Give people a sense who maybe don't have kids about the staffing issues they have. They have to follow very specific guidelines in terms of the age of children and the number of staff who have to watch them. This is very critical to this report.

Derek: Staffing at daycare facilities is really tough. So you not only need to have caregivers who are credentialed and go through all of the background checks, and have been trained and have taken the coursework in order to work in those facilities. You also have to have the correct ratio. So the number of staff per children depending on the age of those children. So, obviously, newborns or infants require more staff to watch over them given their age. Whereas when you get older, into toddler territory, you need less staff, but you still need a lot of staff to watch over kids. And in Michigan, you need, generally speaking, regardless of age, you need one staffer for every seven children. Obviously, for younger kids, that that's even less. But that ratio is a really important metric, because a lot of facilities ground their entire hiring and staffing process around those numbers. And in a lot of cases, we got hundreds of reports from the licensing agency in Michigan that oversees daycare facilities. And we found that in a lot of cases daycare facilities are operating way over ratio. They have 30-35 kids for every available staffer. That's way too many. And when the licensing agency goes in and does their annual checks or inspection reports they have found this repeatedly over and over again across the state. And that hurts not just the quality of care but it also makes things dangerous for kids. There's hundreds of reports of injuries of kids, and in a few cases, usually five to six per year, kids die in these facilities.

Rick Brewer: You cited various examples, and I think in Canton and Grand Rapids where children were at real risk of of injury and there were cases where some kids were injured. Elaborate on that a little bit more for us, please.

Derek: Not to blame anyone but we highlighted one specific case in Grand Rapids at a hotel swimming pool. And a caregiver had brought seven children to a Holiday Inn Express indoor swimming pool for a pre-Easter party. And she had charged the parents $25 per kid to go there for the day and she was there watching them. And there was a lot of kids in the pool area. There was a deep adult pool and then splash pad and a kiddie pool. And we actually got not just the investigative report from law enforcement but we got the surveillance video and the body cam footage from the Kent County Sheriff's Department. And we were able to sort of see and hear all the interviews with everyone there. And essentially what happened was the caregiver had seven kids but also there was 30 kids running around all over this indoor pool area. And one of the children ran off. And she told investigators later that it all happened in a blink of an eye. And the little girl ran off went into the deep adult only pool disappeared for a few minutes. And then, lucky enough, a off duty EMT and an off duty nurse both saw her and pulled her out immediately. And in a sort of a pretty harrowing scene for three consecutive minutes performed mouth to mouth and CPR. She had no pulse, she wasn't breathing. Her lips were blue, her eyes were wide open, it was probably a pretty terrifying sight for everyone. She did survive and talking to the caregiver afterwards sheriff's deputies were just trying to figure out what happened. She said I'm usually great with my kids and I would never let this happen knowingly and I feel awful. And it was pretty revealing to us to sort of see how quickly with seven kids, things can turn to really bad situations.

Rick Brewer: There were so many other examples you cited of just not necessarily dangerous, life threatening situations like that one. But there were also just like people watching 28 maybe 30 Kids in general, too, right?

Derek: Yeah, a lot of ratio issues in Michigan. A lot of cases where there's not enough staff, or I mean, in some cases, a staff member just needs to use the bathroom, and doesn't have someone to cover for them. So they leave children unattended. A lot of cases where children are left unattended in a back yard or a parking lot briefly, because a staff member just lost track of them and didn't do the headcount. Very understandable real lapses that can happen. But it's really exacerbated by the staffing issue across Michigan.

Rick Brewer: In your report, you highlighted Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and how she's touted her record on investing in childcare. And she talked about how she's pledging to invest $100 million in the childcare industry and wants to open 1000 childcare facilities across the state. But some of the people you cited it in the childcare industry here in Michigan, they want to see more still?

Derek: That money is quite important. Having skin in the game, one of the experts told us, is an important part of this. But you have to know that a lot of the funding that's happening for daycare facilities in Michigan, in terms of those one time bonuses, or money to help build new facilities and to get more staff online. A lot of that's coming from the federal government. And it's one time money. So you're probably not going to see it again. And so while that $1.4 billion is really important is helping the industry. It's not a long term solution. The $100 million dollar commitment is state money. That's also important. But of that only about $11 million is being directed toward recruiting staff. So the rest is not enough to obviously fix a big industry that is facing a lot of different problems. A lot of the experts we spoke to just said basically the reality as we know it hasn't changed and staffers are underpaid, they're leaving for other industries. And if Michigan really wants to tackle this, there has to be a mix of big, large solutions.

Rick Brewer: I wanted to also ask you about what did state officials and stakeholders say, where do we go from here after they read your report? What is next following this report?

Derek: So we spoke to LARA, which is the licensing agency that oversees daycare facilities in Michigan. LARA actually created a new program. It was announced after our report came out where it's a one stop shop, essentially, for daycare providers to streamline the recruiting and the hiring process for new staffers. It will make it easier for facilities to train staffers get them the the coursework and the credentials they need in order to work in these facilities. In some cases, it will allow them to work while they're doing that coursework. So that helps facilities get more staffers in the door. It also will help them with workarounds, frankly, to get younger staffers trained up and that helps with the staffing issue. These are important solutions, experts have told us, but they're not necessarily a panacea and things that will help long term

Rick Brewer: Derek thank you so much for your time today excellent reporting.

Derek: Thank you

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.