Daycare Drought: Childcare Can Be Hard To Find For Rural Oklahomans

Wednesday, January 26th 2022, 9:48 pm
By: News 9

It is a big issue across the state and a true crisis in rural Oklahoma. According to Oklahoma Childcare Resource and Referral, the number of licensed childcare providers in Oklahoma has fallen from 6,000 in 2008 to just over 2300 today. And the pandemic has made that made the problem much worse. 

The folks in Western Oklahoma have become accustomed to going sometimes months without rain. But this severe drought, impacting so many families, is because of a commodity that has become as precious as water: childcare. 

“It’s been a huge struggle,” says Kristy Jackson, a single mother of two boys.  She works full time.  But like a vast majority of parents in Kiowa county she doesn't have consistent, reliable childcare. 

“Childcare is my biggest stressor,” she says. “Whether it’s finding someone or being able to afford someone.” 

There are only two licensed childcare providers in all of Kiowa county. Between them there are 19 slots for 871 children under 12 with working parents. 

“I know a lot of the parents around here, they get on the waiting list when they’re pregnant to be able to have a spot and sometimes they still don’t get in until their kid is a year or two old,” says Kristy.  

Christina Block, known for years as Mama Tina, is one of those providers. She is licensed for 7 kids. only two can be under 2. 

“I don’t have to advertise, ever,” she says. “I’ve never advertised. They just find you. And they’re calling and you have a wait list.” 

The only other licensed childcare in the county is also in Hobert.  

“I actually have two families that drive from a town eight miles that way to bring their kids. And then one of the parents has to go back to work those 8 miles because she works in that town there and then comes back to get her child here. So that’s how bad it is.” 

That same story is playing out across rural Oklahoma, and it doesn't just impact providers and parents, but the overall economy as well. 

“I know in Hobert they have had businesses show interest in opening in the Hobert area and have decided to go to another community because there isn’t childcare for their future employees,” says Amber Cuyler, the program manager for Oklahoma Childcare Resource and Referral. 

According to the latest data from the organization: Seven counties in Oklahoma are like Kiowa and only have two providers. Eight have only three providers. Right now, there are no providers at all in Cimarron County. 

“There have been times in the last two years where there were three, four, five counties that had zero facilities that were open,” says Paula Koos the Executive director of the organization. 

Oklahoma Childcare Resource and Referral is charged with the difficult, sometimes impossible task of helping parents find childcare. 

“I had a call just last week from a mom who was crying. She was given the ultimatum find childcare or you won’t have a job the next day,” recalls Cuyler. 

Since the pandemic started the number of licensed childcare providers have decreased by 25%. 

“It dramatically changed the childcare industry,” says Koos. 

Baby boomers nearing retirement decided to close shop. Those who stayed open call it a war zone. Sick kids and stay at home parents put them in a financial strain. And now labor shortages and supply chain issues continue to make things difficult. 

“Because we’re a daycare we have to feed them properly a lot like the schools,” says Block. “So, we must give them fruit, vegetables, grains, sometimes I’m going to three stores.” 

Still, those in the industry say there is opportunity here. Federal and State proposals could help make operating a center more financially stable. And Oklahoma Childcare Resource and Referral provides free support to start up a childcare center. 

The clientele is certainly there. 

“You can go into business in the next 30-40 days and immediately have clients,” says Cuyler. “Have a wait list probably.” 

Those like Christina are begging for help and so are parents. And employers. 

“There’s a lot of people who have to choose between work or childcare right now and what do you do?” says Jackson. 

If you are interested in starting a childcare center, here’s a link to Oklahoma Childcare Resource and Referral.