A 21st Century Journalism Project

CCIS: Lending a hand

In Organizations on April 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm

By Anthony LoPinto

Pennsylvania’s working poor parents face distinct challenges with childcare. Financially, the expense of formal care often approaches or exceeds the total monthly income they receive, a total already stretched thin over several areas of need. Logistically, they must find a reliable care provider, coordinate drop-off and pickup times and ensure their children are safe and happy.

With such multilayered responsibilities, many parents find solace in Child Care Information Services (CCIS), a statewide set of agencies aimed at helping parents locate appropriate and affordable care for their children, most notably through the distribution of subsidies.

“I am a single mom who works really hard, but I have to pay bills, buy food, buy clothes and school items, pay taxes (and) buy gas,” said a CCIS client from Easton, Pa. “With this program, my child is in a safe place and not on the streets.”

Image used courtesy of Creative Commons.

With 59 agencies throughout the commonwealth, CCIS arranges not only for safety, but also determines subsidy eligibility, offers parental counseling, refers parents to childcare centers and, in a broader sense, serves as the intermediary between parents and childcare providers. The roughly 900 CCIS employees in Pennsylvania, who serve about 125,000 children per month, undergo a training program that prepares them to assist parents with the aforementioned difficulties, a quality exemplified from the organization’s highest rank.

Robert Frein, who works as the director of the Bureau of Subsidized Child Care Services in Pennsylvania – meaning he directly oversees CCIS – took an eclectic route to his current post. Frein holds two master’s degrees, one in philosophy and religious studies and the other in counseling psychology.

While it may seem like those disciplines deal little with childcare, Frein explained his background has been foundational to his work.

“My background was really good in that it helped me to think systematically (and) gave me a broad view of the world,” he said. “Hopefully, that allows me to think and be ahead of the game in comparison to a lot of people when it comes to dealing with a variety of issues, which I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Frein explained that CCIS has taken steps to safeguard against those day-to-day issues parents often have when coming to an agency through the implementation of an expansive employee training program. Although a division of labor exists within the agency, Frein said convenience for clients emerges as a priority.

“We’ve really tried to cross-train and integrate services so that we can meet parents’ needs as soon as they come into the office,” he said.

Despite this commitment, budgetary constraints ultimately determine whether parents obtain the aid they request.

Photo courtesy of cccfscm.org.

Though parents of all economic classifications can receive guidance from CCIS, the subsidies it distributes, from the Department of Public Welfare-funded Child Care Works program, are limited. All subsidy-eligible parents are considered working poor, according to Frein, but the availability of care depends on the provisions of the other aid clients receive.

Clients who receive food stamps or are part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program – including clients who meet the time requirements to be former-TANF members – bypass the statewide wait list for subsidies. Low-income families, those traditionally defined as the working poor, belong to a capped category, meaning they can be placed on the wait list if the subsidy funds are unavailable.

“In Pennsylvania, as well as in almost every other state, the need always exceeds the amount of dollars that are available,” said Frein. “That wait list is approximately 10,000 children at this point.”

Underscoring the contributions of CCIS to the childcare landscape is the fact that, once placed on these wait lists, parents struggle to find alternate care options for their children. Frein maintained that CCIS employees will do “everything they can” to help families placed on wait lists, including seeking out temporary scholarships, but parents contend with making their own accommodations and sacrifices.

Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who specializes in low-income families’ ability to procure quality early education and child care, said parents on wait lists may be prevented from working, have to leave children alone or attempt to find “free or low-cost care from friends or neighbors, which may be unreliable and not good for their kids.”

Of the options cited by Adams, the ability for parents to work was of particular concern to Alan Berube, a low-wage workers expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

“Indicators of child well-being – physical and mental health (and) educational performance – correlate strongly with parental income,” he said. “To the extent that child care allows parents with young children to work more and earn more, that’s generally a good thing for kids.”

Both Adams and Berube also clarified a semantic matter regarding the subsidies. With the negative connotation of the term welfare, it is of note that the initial funding source for the subsidies, the Department of Public Welfare, is not representative of the care offered. Instead, the subsidies, which require working parents to meet stringent guidelines and pay a copay (although that figure can be as low as $5), stand opposite of the idea of welfare, according to Adams.

“This is a program that helps families work or participate in work training programs, and is designed to give them the help they need to do that without risking their children’s well-being,” she said. “The child care assistance program is designed to prevent welfare use, as it supports work.”

Along with giving parents the opportunity to work, CCIS also allows for education, often a primary concern for young parents, to be emphasized. The subsidy requirements allow young parents to attend educational programs and offer care during the hours of schooling.

“(CCIS) is important because it helps young teenagers like myself to finish school and graduate and still have child care, which helps my child learn and communicate with kids her age,” said a single mother from Bethlehem, Pa.

With the pledge to fulfill the needs of parents regardless of their specific needs, CCIS reigns as a central, childcare resource for the commonwealth, according to Frein.

“We really consider (CCIS) to be the hub of all information on early childhood programs across the commonwealth,” he said.

To Frein’s point, parental needs may not deal with only one dimension of CCIS, particularly if their children require specialized care; a single mother from Easton, Pa. identified this intersection as a vital one for her son.

“My child participates in a Keystone Star 4 child care program at Little People Country Club. The girls at this center work extremely hard for this accreditation, and it shows in my son,” she said. “My son has autism and this program has helped my son improve tremendously. I would not be able to send my son here if it wasn’t for child care subsidy through CCIS.”

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