Starting another business was the last thing Jerry Dupree wanted to do. And yet the local businessman and his wife, after much soul-searching, were aggressively moving forward with plans to open a daycare center this summer.
"We were really excited about it, to be honest with ya," Dupree admitted, "because it was just a perfect set-up."
Dupree had secured a building -- a recently vacated doctor's office -- that would have required minimal renovation and was only a quarter mile from the center of town where Dupree owns a small convenience store.
At least one of the daycare's likely clients manages the convenience story: Vanessa Tice, the Duprees' daughter, has a 22-month-old daughter.
"I come to work when I can, when [my parents] don't have something." said Tice, a single mother.
Tice says she feels guilty asking her parents to babysit and thus was also excited at the idea of being able to drop her toddler at a licensed child care center just up Highway 70.
"It would be real nice," said Tice, "especially if she was right there. I would feel safe, I think,"
Tice and dozens of other parents in Kingston had good reason to look forward to the opening of a new day care facility. That's because all of the others had closed. Madill, with limited daycare options, is eight miles away, while Durant is 20 miles away.
"It's a big burden on a lot of moms," Tice stated, "I know it is on me."
A lack of licensed daycare is not just a problem in Marshall County, but across the state. Since 2005, 43 percent of all licensed child care centers and homes have closed. According to DHS, there are 3,321 daycare centers today, compared to 5,887 in 2005.
DHS officials say the good news is that the trend appears to be slowing, Further, they point out, in terms of capacity, the decline has been far less dramatic: 15 percent since 2005.
Still, in more rural parts of the state, like Kingston, the impact is noticeable. Dupree has several rental properties and says, since the last daycare center closed, more of his renters, especially single mothers, have been missing payments.
"Okay, what happened?" said Dupree, mimicking the start of a typical conversation he might have with a tenant late with the rent: "'Well, I had to stay home because I didn't have child care', or 'So-and-so couldn't take care of my kids and so I missed a couple of days', or, 'Ya know what--I had to call in and I got fired.'"
Dupree says, as an employer and businessman, he has lost sleep trying to decide how to handle these situations.
"Is this a legitimate excuse, or are they just blowing smoke?" Dupree posed.
Seeing his own daughter struggle to find time to work helped convince Dupree that the excuses were legitimate and the problem -- lack of daycare -- is real. He says it didn't take long for him to see that opening a daycare facility in Kingston would not only be a humanitarian gesture, but also a smart business move, since it would make his employees and renters more reliable.
"It seemed like a really good deal," Dupree explained, "until we started crunching the numbers."
Dupree says he was willing to lose some money on the venture, considering the benefit to the community. But he says the conservative estimate was a monthly deficit of at least $2,000.
"We can't lose two grand a month," lamented Dupree, "there's not a business in Oklahoma that would operate like that."
In August, Dupree scrapped the plan.
"No educated person would go into this business," said Kent Lynn, a long-time daycare provider and board member at the Oklahoma Child Care Association.
Lynn opened his first daycare center in 2002. He says increased regulations and decreased funding have combined to make it very hard for daycare operators, especially those serving low-income families, to break even. Lynn himself had to close a center in the metro this year, he says, due to low attendance.
"The parents just couldn't afford their co-payments so they could bring their kids," Lynn explained, "they wanted to, but they just couldn't afford it."
The cost of child care varies in Oklahoma, depending on where it's located, the age of the child, the rating for the particular child care facility (Oklahoma employs a 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star rating system), and the family's income level. One recent study claimed an average Oklahoma family with two children in child care spends a quarter of their income for that care.
"It's a shock," said Stephanie Jacks, whose 3-year-old son is in daycare in Oklahoma City.
Jacks says both she and her husband earn modest salaries, but she says their income is still far too high to qualify for a subsidy, meaning they pay full price.
"I was used to paying for an apartment, a car payment," Jacks laughed, "and all of the sudden, I could buy a whole other house with what I'm paying for child care."
Just as significant an issue as affordability is the availability of child care.
It's estimated three of every four kids in Oklahoma with working parents do not have access to licensed child care. That works out to about 300,000 children.
"Who's looking after those kids -- unregulated facilities?" questioned Jennifer Phillips, interim executive director of the Oklahoma Child Care Association, "And at that point you have to wonder about the quality of care."
Oklahoma requires all daycare homes and centers to be licensed, with some exceptions, such as when a child is in a preschool or mother's day out program for fewer than 15 hours a week, or when the child is being cared for by a relative or friend.
"In some cases, that's okay," said OCCA Board Member Lynn, "but it seems like every month we see where a child is killed by somebody that the child was left with...there's a lot of kids out there that are in unqualified care, it's not safe for the children."
Since 2013, DHS has received 682 complaints of unlicensed child care operations; in 280 of those cases, the complaint was substantiated, and in nine cases -- all of them in unlicensed child care homes -- a child died.
DHS says safety is the main reason they've set high standards for daycare licensing, and why they take action against those without licenses.
"They're caring for children with no oversight of health and safety requirements," said Lesli Blazer, director of child care services for DHS, "and that could be potentially very dangerous for children."
But many in the industry feel DHS is, at least partly, responsible for that danger. Critics say the agency's inflexibility with daycare rules has made an already challenging business simply not worth the effort for many providers.
"There's so much drama with DHS, that they just shut their doors," said OCCA's Phillips, "Some of them are forced to, while some of them just don't want to deal with it anymore."
But DHS officials insist the feedback they get does not suggest the decline in the number of daycare facilities is the result of overregulation. Instead, they point to decreased funding, which affects both the families trying to afford child care and the operators trying to stay in the black.
"There are about 31,000 children who receive a child care subsidy," said Blazer, "and the rates that we pay providers is very low, it's about fifty percent of market rate."
Blazer says they try to make the case to lawmakers each year that funding for child care is critically important, but say it just hasn't seemed to be a priority for them.
"I really look to the Legislature to fund us properly," Blazer stated, "and if we receive what we need, we can help more families, and we could help child care providers stay in business,"
Or, in Jerry Dupree's case, open a new one.
Dupree believes DHS needs to be more pragmatic in applying standards. Showing some leniency, he says, could be the difference between a single mom in Kingston being able to put her child in daycare and go to work, or repeatedly calling in 'sick', losing her job, and then, in desperation, putting her child in an unregulated, and potentially dangerous, environment.
Dupree says there are currently dozens of families in Kingston who need daycare, and he wants to help.
"It's not gonna work, we can't do it," said Dupree, "not unless something changes."
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