Child Care: Speaking Out

Kathy Lynn Gray
Katy Zeanah (left) and Sue Borchers Zeanah with their children, Henry, 4, and Ruby, 2 months

As full-time working parents with two children under age 5, Katy Zeanah and Sue Borchers Zeanah of Clintonville know a lot about child care.

They know it's tough to find a high-quality program for an infant, and even tougher to find one with space for both their children. They realize they were lucky they each could take paid time off after their children were born. And they also know that, despite having good jobs, their family of four is financially squeezed by child care costs.

So they embraced an opportunity in May 2017 to share their views on modern-day parenting with Ohio senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. Zeanah and Borchers Zeanah and their son Henry, now 4, joined parents and children from 49 other states as part of Strolling Thunder, a daylong lobbying effort sponsored by Zero to Three, a national nonprofit working to improve the lives of babies and toddlers. Pushing strollers, the advocates marched to Capitol Hill and met with their state's congressional members or aides to encourage them to support measures that make the nation's youngest citizens a priority.

“We wanted to put a personal face to the everyday challenges and rewards of being a parent,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for Zero to Three, which is based in Washington, D.C. The 40-year-old organization promotes paid family leave, access to high-quality child care, expanded early childhood mental health services and health and nutrition for pregnant women and babies.

Last year, the group launched the Think Babies campaign to encourage policymakers to recognize how important the first three years of a child's life are to their brain development. “There's a growing awareness of that, but it's something that, if you said it 40 years ago, people would look at you like you were crazy,” Jones-Taylor said. “Now we know that if babies face adverse experiences, it can change their brain chemistry, but you can alter that by identifying it and making a change. High-quality child care, for example, or a person who has a caring bond with a baby, can act as a buffer for that.”

In Ohio, only 34.3 percent of child care centers and 39.2 percent of child care center slots serving children under age 6 are accredited or rated through the state's Step Up to Quality initiative, according to the Early Childhood Advisory Council, a state-affiliated group of stakeholders that advises the governor's administration.

“It seems so ludicrous that we as a country can't understand what a critical time this is for children,” Zeanah said as she nursed the couple's newborn daughter, Ruby, in their home. “We've been very lucky that we've gotten our children in quality child care, but it's costing us more than a mortgage payment.”

The average annual cost of enrolling an infant in an Ohio child care center is $8,985, according to Child Care Aware, a federally funded nationwide repository of care information. That's 42 percent of the median income for a single-parent family, according to the organization.

One state group trying to make a difference is the Ohio Child Care Resource & Referral Association. It focuses on training providers in best practices, linking parents to quality care and increasing the number of high-quality facilities, said CEO Todd Barnhouse. “It's critical to the success of the children that we serve,” he said. “We have a huge number of children who are in poverty in Ohio who have little access to quality child care. The state is focused on increasing the supply of quality child care programs. That's where a huge amount of our work has been focused.”

Groundwork Ohio, meanwhile, lobbies state legislators to improve access to quality child care, said Shannon Jones, executive director. “Our goal is to educate policymakers about how important the investment in early education is,” Jones said. “The brain science is pretty clear now. About 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of a child's life, and kids who start behind often remain behind. Studies have shown that by age 3, low-income learners have half the vocabulary of their higher-income counterparts.”

Zeanah and Borchers Zeanah would like to see Americans embrace three changes for young children and their families: paid leave for every parent after a birth, higher pay and better training for child care workers, and more affordable child care. “You shouldn't have to wheel and deal for time off,” said Zeanah, a school psychologist. “And it's so frustrating that we as a society don't make more of an investment in teachers for young children.”

Paying teachers higher wages would attract better-trained individuals and translate to better care, said Borchers Zeanah, a physical education and health teacher. “When we can support families at this time in their lives, it really pays off,” she said.

The couple said that although Strolling Thunder only lasted one day, it was beneficial. “I left feeling like we had planted some seeds so that the next time legislators are in a committee meeting about funding for children, they can remember what we said,” Zeanah said. “We were giving them our personal experiences to draw from.”

Borchers Zeanah hopes their Washington trip helped start a conversation that will continue. Perhaps, she said, change will come “for our kids' kids.”