Since her daughter was a baby, Brenda Torres has relied on a trusted group of family and friends to look after her child while she works as a server at a resort hotel.
First, various friends helped out the Westminster mom — though one of the arrangements didn’t work out because the caregiver’s nephew kicked her daughter, Azul.
Then Torres’ mother moved to Colorado from Mexico and took over childcare duties.
“It’s so good, because I can work without preoccupation,” said Torres, who earns $12 an hour and sometimes works 20 hour shifts.
Good data doesn’t exist on this type of care—called family, friend and neighbor care. However, it is indisputable that a large number of working parents, including those living at or near the poverty line, rely on such networks at least some of the time.
The circumstances of longtime parent activist MiDian Holmes’s ill-fated bid to join the Denver school board has spotlighted the challenges such parents face.
Ten years ago as a 25-year-old single mother, Holmes described relying on her grandmother sometimes to watch her kids while she worked. On one occasion when Holmes said her grandmother was not available, police received a 911 hangup call from her apartment, investigated and found the kids — 2, 6 and 7 — hiding upstairs alone, records show.
Holmes ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor child abuse charge. She announced last week she would not accept the school board appointment after Chalkbeat reported that what she told district officials and the media was inconsistent with records from her court case.
“Being a working parent is complicated,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “A lot of jobs don’t have sick days, they don’t have vacation days.”
Last-minute scheduling and non-traditional hours often complicate matters, she said.
As a flexible alternative to licensed child care providers, family, friend and neighbor care can solve some of these problems.
Plus, there aren’t enough licensed child care spots anyway. In 2013, there was only enough space in such facilities for 44 percent of Colorado children with all parents in the workforce, according to a 2015 report from the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Under state rules, family, friend and neighbor providers can care for immediate relatives and the children of one unrelated family without being licensed.
Child care provided by family and friends is also typically more affordable than licensed care. In some cases, caregivers work for free. In others, parents pay or barter for the care.
Torres doesn’t pay her mother anything to care for Azul, now 3. But even before Torres’ mother arrived, she didn’t think a child care center was an option because she didn’t have a social security number.
“I was afraid to ask for anything,” she said.
Now, Torres is a legal U.S resident and might be able to get child care assistance. But she said she likes knowing Azul is with her mother, especially when she works extended shifts.
While this kind of nurturing relationship is one of the upsides of such care, potential downsides exist, too. Some providers can feel isolated and may have little knowledge about child development or how to promote school readiness skills.
That’s why some advocates say family, friend and neighbor care deserves more public attention and investment.
“It’s wonderful that we continue to push on improved licensed child care quality, but we have to think about where the majority of kids are spending their time and it’s probably not a licensed child care spot,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
Across the country, a variety of programs focus on increasing support to family, friend and neighbor providers. They include efforts to unionize such caregivers, assist them with getting licensed if they desire and help them qualify for state child care subsidies. Some programs also provide training and materials to these caregivers.
In Colorado, one such example is 10-year-old PASO program run by the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. It provides extensive services — including nine months of training culminating in a child development credential — to Spanish-speaking family, friend and neighbor providers in Boulder County, Greeley and Aurora.
About 330 providers have participated in the program so far, with a new group starting soon in Jefferson County.
Richard Garcia, executive director of the coalition, said one of the goals is to help providers better prepare Latino children for school.
“If you’re going to do anything about the achievement gap, you have to start early,” he said.
But even with the program’s success—it’s earned national and state-level plaudits—Garcia laments the lack of resources available to informal child care providers.
“The only resources we can get (are) through philanthropy,” he said. “We need to get some training dollars set aside for family, friend and neighbor care.”