By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A waiting list to get help from the state for child care costs has been eliminated, partially because of a decrease in other available aid.
Lori Evans, director of Child Care Link at District IV Human Resources Development Council, said funds from the Best Beginnings Scholarship program are available and qualified families can receive help paying for day care so they can work or go to school.
"We wanted to let people know they can be served," she said.
The state Department of Public Health and Human Services had put some eligible people on a waiting list until money was available to help them. Families with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty line are eligible to apply for assistance. The family is required to pay a portion of the child-care bill based on the family's size and income.
Linda Fillinger, chief of the Early Childhood Services Bureau of DPHHS, said many things happened to increase the money available for the scholarship program, including reductions in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
"It helped those families who were able to be employed transition into employment. That's the good news. The bad news, of course, is some families had (TANF) benefits reduced," she said.
The status of Early Beginnings was uncertain during the last legislative session, when Montana lawmakers cut programs to balance the budget.
Legislators later appropriated about $5 million in additional funds, Fillinger said, and the remainder came from savings in TANF.
DPHHS was cautious in allocating the child care aid at first, in case funds ran out and people had to be removed from the program, she added.
"We took a number of months to see how this funding was going and to see if we could stay within our budget and maintain that level of funding," she said.
Fillinger said about 1,000 Montana children and their families who qualified for the program were on the waiting list at the beginning of June. That month, those whose incomes were up to 125 percent of the poverty level were taken off the waiting list and allowed to participate in the program.
In December, people with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level, the top income level allowed in the program, were allowed into the program. Fillinger said about 300 children were on the list at that time.
Evans said she thinks a lot of people quit trying to get into the program after being on the waiting list, or didn't even apply because of the waiting list.
"What we were finding was people who fell into that level weren't even applying because it was so disheartening to apply and then have to wait." she said.
Many people probably found some other way to help pay for their family's care, she added.
"People are desperate and have to make ends meet to go to work," she said.
Fillinger said she suspects that some people left children at home alone who probably shouldn't have been left by themselves. The problem was even more severe for people whose TANF benefits were reduced, requiring that they spend more money to make up for the loss and reducing money available for child care.
Jessica Weise, a full-time student majoring in elementary education at Montana State University-Northern and an employee of Hanson's Western Drug, receives about $360 a month to help send her daughter to day care. If she didn't receive the help, Weise said, she probably would have to drop out of school until her daughter, 16-month-old Aidan Nichols, is older.
"It's a good program and I'm thankful for it," she said. "The main reason I'm in Havre is to go to college and finish my degree."
Weise takes her daughter to the Toy Box, the day care operated by Stephanie and Shane Ford.
Stephanie Ford said she thinks a lot of people quit trying to get help for their day care costs. In the past, about half the people at her day care used the Early Beginnings program. Now only about a third do, she said.
The Shanes care for about 20 children a week at their business.