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Parents await ruling on child care assistance subsidy

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Child care shutdown
Tiffany Woeste of Blaine is a single mother of two preschoolers, Evan, 4, left, and Austin, 3. A state subsidy pays for the boys' child care.
MPR Photo/ Sasha Aslanian

Child care assistance is one of many ongoing headaches in the state government shutdown, now in its seventh day.

Twenty-six thousand Minnesota families received notice from the state that their child care subsidies would be cut off in a government shutdown. But the money comes from a pool of federal, state and county dollars. A judge could decide if those dollars can be sorted, and possibly distributed toward child care.

Sara Forrey is a single mother from Burnsville. Her two daughters, ages 7 and 2, stay at a family day care while Forrey goes to her two part-time jobs as a massage therapist. She estimates she makes $1,000 a month, and she's happy to be working again after five months of unemployment earlier this year. But this week, instead of her usual co-pay of $17.50 for the subsidized care, during the shutdown, she has to pay the whole cost of $280 a week.

"Money that I have set aside that I used for daycare this morning, I was going to use for my half of rent, so we'll see how all that works out," said Forrey.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton did not include child care subsidies in his original list of what he considered essential government services.

Ramsey County judge Kathleen Gearin agreed with Dayton in her ruling last week that state child care subsidies are not critical core services. But she also ruled the state was obligated to deliver programs paid for with federal dollars.  Dayton this week amended his list of essential services to include child care subsidies. Gearin hasn't yet ruled on this request. 

As it stands, Gearin's current ruling complicates the issue, because Minnesota uses federal dollars from a program called Temporary Aid for Needy Families to partly cover child care subsidies. Mary Nienow with the statewide advocacy group Child Care Works, hopes for a decision soon.

"Where the confusion lies is that all child care assistance has elements of TANF funding within it, and it's mingled with state and local dollars and there's just no way to separate the funding pools in order to provide child care assistance," Nienow said.

The court-appointed special master, Kathleen Blatz, will hear more testimony Thursday on the child care issue. Families and their providers in the meantime are figuring out who pays.

Cisa Keller, of the Minnesota Child Care Association and New Horizon Academy, said some centers are still accepting children whose parents receive subsidies, but the families must pay if the state doesn't. 

"If anything, it's more just the uncertainty. I think families were hoping for a very speedy resolution to this so they were waiting and continuing to attend the centers and were just hoping they're going to see something in the next couple of days," Keller said. "As every day passes, though, they're realizing they're not necessarily going to be able to stay in our centers so they are having to look as to whether there's going to have to be alternative measures."

In Forrey' case, finding an alternative could be difficult.

"Hopefully, I don't have to cut back my hours at one of my jobs to be able to afford daycare," Forrey said.

Four Republican lawmakers who serve on the Health and Human Services Committees in the House and Senate were unavailable for comment. The GOP budget called for a 5 percent trim to subsidies, which have not been raised in a decade. The Republican budget bill that includes child care was vetoed by Dayton.

When the lights come back on, the checks that do flow to child care could be smaller.

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This story was produced with the help of the Public Insight Network.