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Oil Patch day care in short supply

Staci Ekblad of Williston helps Vernon Copenhaver with his shoes at Ekblad Development Center. She said her child care is full, and she does her best to refer parents to other resources. "We do feel bad for them obviously, but our guidelines are set in stone with the state," she said.

Editor's note: This is the first story in a two-part series looking at the child care shortage in northwestern North Dakota.

WILLISTON -- Judy Vinger gets 10 calls every day from desperate parents asking her to take their children.

She tries to give them hope and encourages them to keep trying, but there's nothing else she can do.

"It's heartbreaking to continue to say no," she said.

With strict rules on how many children can attend a day care and concerns about staff turnover in a competitive Oil Patch job market, Vinger has no choice but to turn away parents from her in-home business.

For parents like Shari Nass, that means having to quit a job in a town begging for employees so she can instead stay home with children.

"It's difficult. I've worked since I was 14 years old and to not have a job ... I like being home with the kids, but at the same time, you don't have adult interaction," said Nass, 28, a dental hygienist.

The child care crunch in northwestern North Dakota is "beyond critical," said Kathy Molland of Williams County Social Services.

A fall survey found nearly 2,500 children potentially needing day care in Williams County and licensed capacity for only 471, according to North Dakota Child Care Resource and Referral.

Parents are so desperate for day care that they will offer to pay to be on a waiting list or pay for the day care's supplies, said Staci Ekblad of Williston's Ekblad Development Center.

"A lot of people are very stressed, kind of at a loss," she said. "They don't know what to do."

And with more and more people moving to Williston every day in search of employment, local day care providers say child care is an economic development issue that needs to be taken seriously by state and local officials.

The challenges

Those involved with the child care industry in the Oil Patch say the challenges are numerous and difficult to address.

The first step is finding people interested in becoming a licensed provider. But Molland, who oversees child care licensing in Williams County, said people who express interest don't always understand what's involved.

"It's not like, 'Well, I'm going

to babysit,'" Molland said. "It's a business."

Along with that comes the need to have a business plan, develop child safety policies and procedures, and undergo inspections.

"Out of all of the calls that I receive (expressing interest), a very small percentage actually go through with it," she said. "My perception is that they look at it and think it's a lot of work."

For those who are interested, finding a location for the business is another hurdle.

Having a suitable home for child care is important. This is a challenge for new arrivals to Williston who may be interested in starting a day care but live in motels, trailers or campers due to the housing shortage in the city.

There's "no way" most people could afford to start a day care outside of their home due to the skyrocketing prices for commercial space, Molland said.

"There really aren't buildings available or lots available, and who could pay out the horrendous amount of cash that you'd have to have in order to purchase those items?" she said. "It would take you years and years and years to recoup."

The high wages offered by the oil industry present another set of challenges. Those who may have been interested in the child care business can now make more money working for an oil company or for another business that's raised wages to be competitive.

And for those already operating day cares, attracting and retaining employees in the city's booming job market is difficult.

"They don't have a benefits package for them or housing," Molland said. "One provider had a staff member go on her lunch break and never come back."

Some of the bigger day cares keep an extra employee or two on hand to ease the burden of staff turnover, but this also affects them financially,

Molland said.

"I know a lot of people think, 'I'm paying so much for child care. They're raking in the dough.' It's not a huge moneymaker by any means, not at all," Molland said. "When a fast-food place can pay a heck of a lot more than a helper at a day care or a staff member at a day care (earns), that's tough."

Vinger said she's licensed to care for 30 kids, but only takes 18 due to staffing challenges the past few years.

"Until I can guarantee that I have the quality staff to accommodate that license, I'm not willing to do that (take more kids)," she said. "I don't want to build up with kids and then, one day, I don't have enough staff."

Finding licensed providers who accept babies in Williston is hard, as is finding providers open beyond 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Molland said. She knows the child care crunch has contributed to a lot of illegal care, or unlicensed supervision of too many children.

She doesn't know if there's a word to describe how urgent the child care situation is in Williston.

"It's beyond critical," she said. "I don't know what the answer is to this. We definitely need a lot more providers, but how do we get them?"

Parents' perspective

It's to the point that parents in Williston need to find a day care and then get pregnant, said Kayla Retzer, marketing director for Williston State College.

Nass, the dental hygienist who had to quit her job, said she tried calling as many as eight day cares and couldn't find an opening for the quality care she wanted for her now 5-month-old son.

"That's what makes it, I think, really hard, too, for families to move here," said Nass, whose family moved from Fargo to Williston three years ago.

Todd Watterud of Williston said his family spent about a year on waiting lists before finding day care for his now 5-year-old twins.

"It's pretty unnerving when you both have jobs, and you're trying to do your job at work and worry about if you're going to have day care the next day or any care for your kids," he said.

The family has stable day care now, but he said he has friends who still struggle and need to have one parent stay home because they can't find child care.

The child care crunch is also tough on Williston employers. Western Cooperative Credit Union CEO Melanie Stillwell said she receives a lot of job applications, but many have stipulations that they can only work if they find day care.

For those who do find day care, they may have to pick up their children by 5 p.m., creating work scheduling issues, Stillwell said.

"It's (child care availability) always been an issue in Williston, but now it's a very, very huge issue," she said.

In Saturday's edition, local and state officials explain how they're trying to address the problem.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.