This is part one of a series on the childcare shortage in Richland County and the state of Montana.

It’s a problem many parents face when it comes to raising children - who can watch them after school, during work hours or in the summer? The childcare shortage in Richland County has been frustrating area families for years and there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution in sight. Currently, daycare providers, children center directors and Richland County Health Department are partnered together and forging ahead through the crisis.

“We need childcare providers,” said Kathy Helmuth, health assurance nurse director with Richland County Health Department. “We have some awesome ones and they are more than willing to help people get started if people want to pick their brains. I know this group. I meet with them once a month during the year. They’re fabulous people.”

There are seven daycare providers in Sidney, as well as eight preschools in Richland County, but that isn’t enough to cover kids in need.

“We need more slots and we need an infusion of some new people,” Helmuth said.

Elaine Stedman, CEO of Boys and Girls Club of the Mondak (BGC), has been working hard to expand not only the number of kids they accept, but the age range as well. This fall, the center will include a teen program, stretching their top age group from fifth grade to eighth grade.

“I think that’s really important for those teens who maybe aren’t in any sports or extracurriculars and are going home to an empty house,” she said. “Daycares are maxed out, so there’s really no place for those school-age kids to go after school.”

With BGC’s new building, they were able to take 50 kids per day this summer, but still ended up with a waiting list.

“Summer camp is quite a bit different than after school,” Stedman said. “We have them for 10 hours a day and we try to keep it very reasonable, but there isn’t a lot of alternatives for summer so it’s really important for us to be able to offer that.”

Next summer, Stedman said their goal is to be able to serve 75-100 kids per day. They are projecting 200 kids for their after school program this fall. The new location can physically accommodate 300 children, but staff-wise, Stedman said 200 is a more realistic number for them.

“We are the only every day after school thing in Sidney,” Stedman said. “Our long-term plan is to grow our footprint in this area - eastern Montana and western North Dakota.”

While Fairview does have a school-related after school program, no other smaller community in the area does. The lack of options seems to reflect a cultural norm in Richland County.

“Rural communities have a complexion of their own,” Stedman said. “A lot of time, rural communities get the idea that the kids can kind of take care of themselves. That probably stems back to the farming and when kids were out on the farm. But that’s not so much the case anymore, so it’s really important to have those places for kids to be safe and engaged.”

Michelle Byer, executive director of Jitterbugs in Sidney, said she constantly struggles with parents desperate to get their children signed up for daycare.

“Every year the only slots I have available are eight new infants because I shift all of my classrooms as they grow,” Byer said. “I fill all eight spots and have an average of five to 10 babies on a waiting list trying to get in for that same year.”

It doesn’t stop there.

“I get at least two to eight phone calls per week of parents looking for childcare ages infant through 6. Unless somebody moves or quits, I never have an older opening,” she said. “If they don’t start with us as an infant and shift through all of our classrooms they hardly ever get in.”

Byer said it’s gotten to the point where she advises couples to call her when they are thinking of getting pregnant or as soon as a positive test is taken. If they wait any longer than that, she likely can’t get them a spot.

To combat the issue, the Sunrise Childcare Association meets once a month and discusses the shortage. Area daycare providers are in a constant state of turning people away. Programs like Family Connections Montana are also aiding parents and care providers in finding solutions. They can help connect families to local care options and sometimes even provide cost relief through scholarships.

One solution many parents turn to is unlicensed care providers. Helmuth with the health department said there are reasons to be cautious of such situations.

“Here’s our message about it. If you really look at the rules, it’s technically against the law to watch children if you aren’t a licensed childcare. The problem is, enforcement isn’t well done, especially this far from Helena,” Helmuth said.

The health department has worked with unlicensed care providers to get them licensed with the state in the past. One of the biggest concerns with being unlicensed is most homeowner policies won’t cover a business operating out of the home. Which means liability can become an issue if something went wrong.

Byer said she’s had parents come to Jitterbugs in tears, frustrated and worried about what they were going to do with their kids while at work. Those are some of the toughest moments of her job.

BGC’s Stedman echoed that same sentiment.

“Those are some of the hardest conversations we have,” Stedman said. “It breaks my heart to think of a kid sitting at home alone.”

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