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Daycare Serving BC's Poorest Forced to Dump Kids

Funding cuts ignore research on early childhood investment, say advocates.

Tom Sandborn 2 Nov 2009TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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Minister Polak: Some funding was 'interim'

"Bridge funding" from the province -- which allowed the Phil Bouvier daycare in Vancouver's Strathcona neighborhood (Canada's poorest postal code) to employ three extra staff members for a short time this year -- ran out this summer.

Now the effects are rippling out. Three staff members had to be laid off, which caused seven children with special needs to have to leave the centre.

"The so-called 'bridge funding' was apparently a bridge to nowhere," says Fern Jeffries, a community activist working with the parents and staff at the beleaguered daycare centre.

"The government provided extra money for Phil Bouvier until after the election was safely past, and then it disappeared," said Jeffries, who served as assistant deputy minister in several B.C. ministries and in other roles in the federal government before her retirement.

The upheavals at this one small daycare centre run counter to what expert researchers are prescribing as a way to counter social ills such as unemployment, crime and addiction. Investing in early childhood development saves money down the line, according to studies done in the U.S. and here in B.C.

Advocates like Jeffries say that all of Canada -- not just B.C. -- is headed in the wrong direction by making shortsighted cuts to daycares and other support for children with special needs.

The cuts to the Phil Bouvier budget means "there are seven special needs children who will enter kindergarten without the benefit of any early learning opportunities," Jeffries said.

'We were blessed'

Stacey Bonenfant is a single mom in Strathcona whose five-year-old son Dragon, who suffers from high anxiety and panic attacks, and is considered a special needs child like many kids in Strathcona, was at Phil Bouvier during the time the three extra staff positions were funded. Bonenfant told The Tyee that the Phil Bouvier staff have been crucial support for Dragon as he moves on to a therapeutic kindergarten.

"Dragon loved it at Phil Bouvier," she said. "The staff loved him and accommodated his needs. We were blessed. They didn't abandon us. Even now, staff from the day care are consulting with the teachers at the therapeutic kindergarten to help plan for him."

Bonenfant said she was outraged to learn of the funding cuts this summer.

"These cuts create unsafe conditions for kids," she said. "All the kids in this neighborhood are at risk, but the ones growing up in poverty are even more vulnerable. We just want the three staff we lost back."

Minister Polak disputes claim of cuts

But Mary Polak, B.C.'s minister of children and family development, said that Bonenfant and the other parents and activists who spoke with The Tyee have nothing to complain about. In an email to The Tyee on Oct 15, Polak insisted that there had been no funding cuts at Phil Bouvier.

"There is no change in the province's funding for the Phil Bouvier centre. No funding has been withdrawn -- there are no cutbacks. The government provided $1 million to help construct the facility -- and, on an ongoing basis, we provide $85,000 in annual operating funding for all 49 childcare spaces, in addition to around $420,000 each year in subsidy funding to help offset childcare," the minister's email began.

Polak went on to cite money her ministry has provided to fund a family support worker to help parents access services. Midway through her email, the minister does acknowledge that last November her ministry provided $60,000 for what she describes as an "interim solution."

"The facility was aware that they needed to produce a plan and complete the assessments before any further funding discussions could take place," she said.

Jefferies told The Tyee in a recent interview that the $420,000 mentioned by the minister is paid to low income parents to assist them in paying daycare fees. This money, she said, is not a payment to the childcare centre.

Some parents wary of ministry assessments

Jefferies also challenged the minister's account of the relationship between assessments and funding for special needs children.

"Many parents are unwilling to have the ministry be privy to their child's assessments, as they fear losing their children," she told The Tyee.

"Often these parents were themselves apprehended, and spent their youth being bounced from one foster home to another. No wonder they don't want to disclose everything to the ministry. Assessments were completed by a nurse practitioner, but the ministry funders didn't accept these. Assessments are the way into the line up for services. Most kids age out waiting for service. The programs providing services once children are assessed are totally over-subscribed."

When is a cut not a cut?

The Tyee has obtained copies of correspondence from this summer between Minister Polak and Steve Bouchard, president of Ray Cam Co-operative and Community Centre.

Responding in this correspondence to a request that the ministry extend the funding which had allowed Phil Bouvier to hire the three extra workers, Minister Polak made many of the same points she did in her email to The Tyee about the government's input into Phil Bouvier funding.

Bouchard's response shows that the community volunteer is not persuaded by the minister's arguments.

For example, Bouchard dismisses the minister's reference to $85,000 in annual operating funding. He points out that this figure represents a universal per capita amount paid to all daycares in the province, no matter how affluent or poor the neighbourhood they serve.

"Your funding program does not distinguish between high needs inner-city centres and those centres where parents can afford to pay fees that more closely meet the real operating costs. In centres in the inner-city, this funding is used for necessities, whereas in more affluent centres, this money can be used for optional extras," he writes.

Bouchard says that the phrase "bridge funding" in the minister's letter to him is surprise, and not a phrase he had heard from ministry staff before the summer. He asks if the government will continue to develop and fund "programs that leave inner-city children behind."

'This is not a typical daycare centre'

Rose Bonardell is the family support worker Minister Polak mentioned in her email. Bonardell, who has worked in the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona for 20 years, said that Phil Bouvier staff are overwhelmed by the demands that funding and staff changes have imposed on them this fall.

"The front-line workers are doing their best," Bonardell said, "but they can't meet the special needs of these kids if the centre is staffed on the eight kids to one staff ratio that they have now. This is not a typical daycare centre, where at most 25 per cent of the kids will be classified special needs. Most of the kids here are at risk in one way or another."

Mable Elmore, the NDP member for Vancouver-Kingsway riding and deputy critic for the ministry of children and family development, supports the call for restoring the lost funding at Phil Bouvier daycare.

"There is a crisis in our childcare system," Elmore told The Tyee. "I want these staff positions to be restored, but we also need a much more comprehensive discussion about what a progressive economy would look like, complete with much better daycare services and wide-ranging anti poverty initiatives."

Fern Jeffries agreed the crisis at Phil Bouvier illustrates a larger crisis with daycare in Canada, and highlights the system's failure take into account the special needs and vulnerabilities found in the nation's inner cities. What she and other daycare critics are calling for, she told The Tyee, is a childcare strategy custom designed to meet the needs of inner cities.

In a document Jeffries and others were circulating this summer when the Phil Bouvier cuts first went public, some of the elements of such an inner-city strategy are itemized.

"An inner-city strategy will," the document says, "provide enhanced early childhood development opportunities throughout the community, be an access point for parents to seek primary health care and subsequent referrals to required mental health and developmental specialists, support parents in their homes as well as at a childcare centre -- providing critical prevention services for families needing extra help and support to avoid the risk of child apprehension, develop long-term relationships with parents who often have themselves come through vulnerable high risk childhoods, and provide support and guidance during key transition periods, i.e. childcare to school and elementary school to middle school."

Early investment shown to pay off: researchers

Vancouver Native Health Society Executive Director Lou Demarais told The Tyee that he supports the concept of an inner-city strategy for day care. He said he was saddened by the recent cuts to day care staffing at Phil Bouvier, which he described as "a good service."

To those who say such reform to childcare service would be too expensive, advocates like Jeffries respond that massive investment in early learning and development for children at risk is not only the right thing to do, it makes good economic sense. They point to research which says that money put into making at-risk children ready for school leads to significant social savings in terms of better high school completion, less criminal and addiction issues as children grow up, and more economic success for the children who get early support.

At UBC's Human Early Learning Project (HELP), researchers including Founder and Director Dr. Clyde Hertzman have studied the impacts of poverty on child development and high-risk environments like the Strathcona neighborhood on readiness to start school.

HELP research shows that in 2008-2009, 66 per cent of children in Strathcona entered the school system with one or more vulnerabilities that would impair their readiness to learn and grow. That same year, across the province, 29 per cent of children entering school were vulnerable on one or more of the scales the HELP research used in measuring learning readiness.

A recent piece of HELP research funded by the B.C. Business Council's Opportunity 2020 Project, "Fifteen by Fifteen," calculates that ending unnecessary early childhood vulnerability could save the economy $400 billion in losses over the next 60 years.

The researchers say that reducing childhood vulnerabilities in the province by half -- which is already a provincial government goal in its targets for school readiness by 2015 -- will increase the provincial GDP by 20 per cent.

At a public event at the SFU downtown campus on Oct 27, Dr. Hertzman said that the comprehensive reforms he and his colleagues advocate in their "15 by 15" paper would include the special efforts in inner-city neighborhoods being promoted by activists like Fern Jeffries.

'Place-based' funding

An inner-city childcare strategy, Jefferies told The Tyee, is in keeping with the growing body of empirical research and evaluation that supports a "place-based" approach to funding. For example, she said, New York City's Harlem Children's Zone brings a range of support to the community, addressing all the problems and challenges faced by children and families living in poverty.

One U.S. group also dedicated to "place-based" programs to reduce childhood vulnerabilities, Los Angeles's First Five program, has this to say about the success of the Harlem program:

"The impact of the HCZ Project has been undeniable. This past spring, 100 percent of the third-graders who participated in HCZ programs scored at or above grade level in the statewide math tests. Additionally, 81 percent of participating parents read more to their children and $4.8 million were returned to Harlem residents as a result of HCZ's free tax-preparation service."

But in B.C.'s poorest neighbourhood, resources for such reforms are trending in the opposite direction, as the children and staff of the Phil Bouvier day care are left to figure out how to make do with less than they believe they were promised.  [Tyee]

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