RIght from the Start

December 2, 2019

RIght from the Start is a legislative and budget campaign to advance state policies for young children and their families in Rhode Island. During the COVID-19 crisis, it has become even more clear that policies and programs that help families with young children are essential for a strong economy and public health. Investments now will help our state and Rhode Island’s young children and families weather this crisis and emerge stronger on the other side.

Child Care Provider Jen Rathbun’s Story: Child Care Industry In Need of Funding, Qualified Teachers

June 9, 2022

Nearly two decades ago, Jen Rathbun was asked to join the Board of Directors for the nonprofit child care program Joyful Noise in West Warwick, Rhode Island when her son was a toddler attending the program. She held a few different roles within the organization, and was named director in 2017. 

“Ensuring parents are happy is extremely important, but I realized quickly that it’s arguably most important to keep your staff happy,” said Jen. “If I notice someone on my team showing signs of burnout, I immediately get them additional support, or switch up their classroom assignment or their co-teachers–something to ensure their personal well-being and their ability to continue to do their job at the necessary level of peak performance. And of course I’m doing everything I can to get funding to increase their wages–they deserve more.”

Although the pandemic has made things difficult for Joyful Noise, as it has for the entire child care industry, Jen and her team found it to be a unique opportunity to address staff compensation challenges. Joyful Noise received a child care reinvigoration grant (funded with federal COVID relief resources) which allowed them to make necessary upgrades to their facilities, and applied for various COVID-related child care stabilization grants which allowed them to provide much-needed wage increases, bonuses for teachers and staff, and even tuition relief for a few families enrolled in the program who were facing pandemic-related financial difficulties.

“Families and teachers in our community were struggling. It was so important for us to help with tuition so families could stay on their feet, and to pay our teachers bonuses and wage increases to ensure we retain the talented, qualified staff to run our business successfully,” said Jen. “We’re doing ok now because of this temporary support, but when these grants are no longer available, I don’t see how we’ll keep the highly qualified teachers we need. So many centers have closed, and the child care crisis will worsen without this pandemic relief that has been a lifeline.”

Joyful Noise currently has a long waitlist, including thirty families for their toddler classroom alone. However, they’re still struggling to find and retain enough qualified teachers to staff their classrooms. 

“Many job applicants aren’t qualified, and qualified teachers often can’t justify staying in the field due to the low pay. In the long-term, we need big changes so that we can adequately pay early childhood educators, but in the short term, we spend a lot of time and money constantly searching for and hiring new teachers, and training them to work with the kids,” said Jen. 

Jen stresses the importance of passing the Early Educator Investment Act (H-7283 / S-2235) and passing an FY23 state budget includes funds to continue the ARPA pandemic retention bonus for all child care educators, to provide $2 million to expand the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood scholarship program model, and to provide $5 million in ARPA funds to launch the Child Care WAGE$ model to provide additional compensation to child care educators with post-secondary credentials. 

“Professional development is mandatory for us, and our teachers spend many hours continuing their education so we can provide the highest quality early learning environment. We also have multiple employees who have been able to take advantage of the incredible T.E.A.C.H. program, which reimburses them for some of the costs to get their degree while they’re working, and reimburses child care centers so we can pay someone to fill in for them. It benefits everyone,” said Jen.

She also encourages legislators to pass the Child Care is Essential Act (H-7177 / S-2681) and include $50 million in state and federal funding to increase Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) rates, and lift family income eligibility limits so more families can get help paying for child care, continue CCAP payments based on children’s enrollment, and make investments to improve the quality and expand the supply of child care statewide.

“I hope legislators and other decision-makers realize how important this workforce is, and compensate them accordingly so we can attract the best and brightest teachers to the field. Early childhood educators shape the future. They can’t be at the bottom of the scale in terms of pay–this work is too important, and we’re missing out on so many incredible educators if we’re not willing to pay them a living wage,” said Jen.

Educator Emma Villa’s Story: Home Child Care Providers Struggling to Survive

June 7, 2022

Emma Villa has been running Emma’s Home Daycare for almost 20 years out of her Providence home. Originally from Mexico, Emma has always had a passion for teaching.

“Parents sometimes come in with the misconception that home child care providers are ‘just babysitters,’ and I’m proud to change their perspective,” said Emma. “They see that I’m an educator, helping their child learn in a safe, loving environment. I teach them developmentally appropriate skills that create an educational foundation for the rest of their life.”

Before the pandemic, Emma’s business was thriving, and she often had a long waitlist. Since the start of the pandemic, enrollment has fluctuated dramatically. Many parents in Emma’s community rely on Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) subsidies to pay for childcare, and even small raises and extra income from working overtime can mean that families lose the assistance they rely on to pay for child care. If a family no longer meets eligibility requirements, they cannot afford the cost of child care on their own. Families have to look for other options (often unlicensed) or figure out how to reduce their income so they can retain their CCAP subsidy. When families cannot afford the payments for her program and don’t qualify for CCAP, Emma has to look for another child to enroll in her program who has a family eligible for CCAP.

“At one point during the pandemic, I had only one child attending for seven months, while I still had to pay for the operating costs for my program.. It’s not sustainable, especially when the cost of everything else–basic living expenses, gasoline, safety protocols–has gone up.” Statewide data show that the number of families with a child care subsidy is at an all time low. Since 2019, the number of families who have qualified for a child care subsidy is down 42%.

Although Emma’s classroom is still only at half capacity, she was able to stay in business through the financial hardships of the last few years due to pandemic relief funds. She considers herself “one of the lucky ones,” but doesn’t know how she’ll stay open if the current funding system doesn’t change.

“Home child care providers are in serious trouble. With less spots to fill, we are vulnerable to economic fluctuations than larger centers. With less options for funding streams coming in, we have less of a safety net when families leave,” said Emma. “It’s a demanding job, with little financial reward. We enter this profession because we love working with children, but then we often don’t have access to a decent quality of life for ourselves.”

Emma encourages legislators to increase eligibility for CCAP, so that families are able to continue to access child care even as the cost of living continues to rise and families must earn more to support themselves. In addition to ensuring that families maintain access to child care, Emma encourages legislators to ensure that child care providers are able to keep their doors open by increasing funding and reimbursement rates, and providing support so home child care providers can access crucial grants. Emma says better compensation for home child care would allow providers to enjoy paid time off and adequate health insurance coverage, including mental health coverage. She stresses that supporting the health and wellbeing of the workforce is crucial to ensuring that families are able to find qualified providers who are well-equipped to care for their children.

“The current child care system doesn’t meet the needs of families or child care providers. Costs go up, and nothing significantly changes in how providers are compensated or reimbursed,” said Emma. “If increasing numbers of families can’t afford care and providers can’t afford to stay open, then what happens to all those kids? They’re missing out on high quality child care, and falling behind before they even enter school. It sets up future generations for failure.”

Parent Janette Perez’s Story: Unable to Finish College and Work Full-Time Without High-Quality Child Care

May 23, 2022

Providence resident Janette Perez has struggled to access affordable high-quality child care for her family for eight years. Her three children are currently three, five, and eleven, and she’s faced numerous barriers navigating the child care system since her oldest was born. 

“My stress level has been incredibly high from when each of my kids were born until they were eligible for the state-run Pre-K lottery,” said Janette. “When my oldest turned three, I was able to enroll her in a free full time, high quality Head Start program, which was an incredible relief. This huge barrier was suddenly removed–I could complete my Bachelor’s degree when my oldest was three and continue to support my family. I also felt better knowing that she was being given the tools to thrive socially and emotionally.”

Janette is grateful that access to Head Start and RI Pre-K allowed her to complete both her Bachelor’s degree and her Master’s in Social Work (MSW) at Rhode Island College. She was surprised that figuring out how to access child care was the hardest part of her path to completing her education. Janette found herself simultaneously juggling a full course load, completing a full time internship, and working a full time work study job. Since her schedule didn’t allow her to earn enough to pay for child care out of pocket, she sought child care assistance from the state of Rhode Island, and was told that she did not qualify because she wasn’t working enough paid hours.

“When my oldest daughter was three, I went to DHS to apply for child care assistance. In what was hopefully an isolated incident, the case worker advised me to drop out of school and apply for cash assistance so I could be eligible for child care,” said Janette. “I’m not sure what her intentions were, but her shocking words lit a fire under me and I learned to get creative and resourceful with my school scholarships and my connections to people who knew about lesser-known resources for families who were struggling. Although I do feel empowered, it’s difficult for a family of five on just my partner’s salary. It shouldn’t be this difficult for families with young children to work to lift themselves out of poverty.”

Janette cites accessing child care as the biggest cause of stress in her life. “I went to school to get my family out of the cycle of poverty, and it hurts to know that despite those degrees, I’m back in the cycle since I can’t pay for child care that is affordable, high quality, and safe to work full time–I just feel stuck.” she said.

Even though Janette was not able to access child care assistance through the state, she encourages legislators to bolster support for the program, and to increase access to high quality child care for all Rhode Island families. Janette’s and other parents’ advocacy led to funding for a pilot program that allowed some low-income college students in RI to access the Child Care Assistance Program. This pilot program ran from October 2021 through April 2022 and helped 10 low-income families with 21 children before the allocated funds were depleted. Governor McKee’s proposed FY23 budget and the RI Child Care Assistance bill pending at the State House would make this pilot program permanent to help low-income college students get help paying for child care so they can earn degrees. Passage of the RI Child Care is Essential bill will also dramatically expand access to the Child Care Assistance Program to help more low- and moderate-income working families. 

”Creating a system of affordable, high quality child care options is key to families thriving,” said Janette. “You need to offer high quality child care so parents can work with the peace of mind that their children are safe and being set up to succeed in school. It’s an investment in society–children are our future, and they need a foundation that will allow them to succeed.”

Parent Meagan Richards Story: Lack of Access to High-Quality Child Care

May 19, 2022

Meagan Richard’s son Lincoln was born in 2020, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. An event and trade show producer, the Johnston resident lost her job when the pandemic shut down in-person events. Newly jobless, Meagan found herself struggling at home with an infant son who confounded experts.

“From the day Lincoln was born until he started at his current child care program two months ago, he would cry for a minimum of three hours a day. Nothing his pediatrician or Early Intervention specialists suggested alleviated his distress,” said Meagan.

Meagan planned to continue her career after she had children, so she and her husband had applied for waitlists for multiple high-quality child care programs before Lincoln was even born. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to secure a spot at any of their preferred centers so they had to make do with child care options that were available during a nationwide and statewide staffing crisis for licensed child care programs.

When Lincoln was thirteen months old, he managed to toddle out of the licensed child care center he was attending due to lack of proper supervision, and a stranger found him walking by a busy road and took him back to the center. Meagan and her husband didn’t find out what happened for five days because the center didn’t report it–which they’re mandated to do. The stranger who rescued Lincoln contacted the Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) to report the encounter, and DCYF got involved. Meagan describes the incident as “a devastating breach of trust” and she immediately took Lincoln out of the child care program.

Although it took 20 months to get Lincoln into a high-quality child care center, a referral specialist at BrightStars helped him find a spot in a child care program at Meeting Street Early Learning Center–a setting that allows him to thrive. Meagan is now working again and 55% of her paycheck goes to paying for his child care, which is far higher than the federal affordability guideline for child care. Meagan’s family does not qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program at current family income limits, and are thankful they’re able to make the financial situation work. Meagan is horrified to think about what could have happened to her son and how he’d be doing if he hadn’t gotten into his current high-quality program.

“At my son’s last center, they’d tell me that he’d tantrum for two hours straight, and there was nothing they could do to help him, which was consistent with our experience at home,” said Meagan. “Lincoln now has teachers and support staff who are trained to help him with sensory and over-stimulation issues, and he is finally happy and able to communicate with my husband and I and his teachers. He hasn’t had a tantrum since he started at Meeting Street two months ago!”

Meagan is passionate about advocating for all families who are navigating a confusing and overwhelmed system to find high quality child care options to meet their needs. “Families often don’t seek help until they’ve called dozens of child care programs and hit hundreds of dead ends. It shouldn’t take a team of specialists and 55% of your income to enroll your child in a high-quality child care program with qualified educators. The system is not adequately funded and it’s failing our children,” she said.

Meagan strongly supports the RI Early Educator Investment Act to improve early educator compensation in child care, Pre-K, family home visiting, and Early Intervention programs. She stresses that without competitive living wages for early childhood educators, programs and services will continue to face staffing challenges and families will continue to struggle to access high-quality child care and early learning support services.

“How many children will fail to thrive if these crucial services aren’t available? Meeting Street program director Andrea Furtado recently told me that Lincoln came in with challenges and after being given the tools and resources, he decided to rewrite his story,” said Meagan. “It’s been a tough road, but we’re now headed down a positive path. It terrifies me to think about the impossible situation countless families are facing without access to these crucial services.”

Kinte Howie Story: Rhode Island’s Early Educators Deserve Worthy Wages

April 26, 2022

Woonsocket Head Start family worker Kinte Howie recently shared his story on a RIght from the Start Zoom event focused on legislation to improve the pay of Rhode Island’s early educators. Read his full story below on the importance of investing in our early childhood educators and the work they do:

My name is Kinte Howie, I’m a Family Worker at Woonsocket Head Start. I’m a 2019 graduate of the University of Rhode Island. I have been working with children since I was 18. I have worked in a classroom as an assistant, to being a site coordinator of an Before and After-school Program, to now a family worker.

A constant theme that I have noticed in all of these places are that education is deeply devalued not just in this country but in this state. Especially Early Childhood. I don’t think these are new issues but I think these are issues that were pushed under a rug until the pandemic made it apparent that not only do we need Early Childhood Education but that our teachers are severely underpaid and undervalued. Many Early Childhood educators have made the decision to dedicate their lives to teaching children at the earliest and the most important time of their development, and yet are being paid at rates that don’t encourage them to stay in this very rewarding field.

The amount of work that Early Childhood teachers put into their classes far exceed what they are being compensated for. Some Early Childhood teachers are having to evaluate / screen children, implement behavior plans, and manage severe behaviors due to education deficits created by the pandemic.

To be an Early Childhood teacher requires you to have knowledge about child development so that children can be monitored to make sure they are developmentally on track both. It usually takes a college degree to have knowledge of that. Many teachers, both Early and Public are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, in addition to being stressed out about not being paid more to be able to put food on table, or not being able to pay their mortgage, or student loans. To be an Early Childhood teacher is to have the power to mold young minds, and to support those young minds into growing up and being valued citizens of our society.

However, if there is no incentive for our teachers and other Early Childhood staff such as family workers, behavioral specialists, and occupational therapists to continue in this field, they will continue to flock to low stress high paying jobs. The issues that we are seeing in this field will continue to become more prominent. I ask you to consider carefully your support for this bill. Support for this bill, to compensate Early Childhood teachers and staff for their expertise will help to alleviate some of these issues.

Fact Sheet: Early Intervention & First Connections Act 2022

April 26, 2022

H-7628 (Giraldo) & S-2546 (Valverde)

Rhode Island’s Early Intervention program provides special education services to infants and toddlers who have developmental delays or disabilities. Early Intervention is the front door to the state’s public education system and the foundation of the special education system implemented by public schools for children from age 3 to high school graduation. Researchers have found that about one-third of infants and toddlers who received Early Intervention no longer had a developmental delay, disability, or special education need in kindergarten.

Under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “Child Find” mandate, states must identify, locate, and evaluate all infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities to determine eligibility for Early Intervention as early as possible. States must serve all eligible infants and toddlers. Rhode Island’s Child Find program is the First Connections home visiting program.

Rhode Island’s Early Intervention program is experiencing a major financial and staffing crisis that is limiting access for infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities. The Rhode Island Early Intervention program has not received a rate increase in 20 years. In fact, Early Intervention programs received rate cuts in 2009 that have not been restored. In 2015, two agencies stopped providing Early Intervention services due to the very low rates that were not sufficient to staff the program. In 2019, a statewide survey of Early Intervention staff, showed that only 28% of staff reported high job satisfaction, 82% planned to leave their jobs if wages did not improve, and 52% had looked for another job in the past six months. In November 2021, a statewide waiting list for Early Intervention was established. As of April 2022, approximately 400 infants and toddlers were on the waiting list for Early Intervention.

Rhode Island’s First Connections program is also experiencing a significant financial and staffing crisis that limits services for children and families. The First Connections program has not received a rate increase in 22 years. Several agencies that provide First Connections services plan to terminate their contract with the state due to lack of funds to adequately staff the program. First Connections programs have an average operating loss for programs of $136.70 per visit. Each year, approximately 60% of all babies born in Rhode Island are identified as being at-risk for poor health and development and are referred to First Connections. In 2020, about 30% of babies received at least one visit from First Connections.

The Early Intervention & First Connections Act will:

1) Provide a 70% Medicaid rate increase for Early Intervention services. This increase is needed to offer competitive wages to Early Intervention specialists (family educators, service coordinators, and licensed therapists) so the program can be adequately staffed, and the waiting list can be eliminated. We estimate that $4 million in additional state general revenue would be needed to raise rates to this level.

2) Provide a 123% Medicaid rate increase for First Connections services. This increase is needed to offer competitive waves to First Connections staff (nurses, social workers, and community health workers). We estimate that $500,000 in additional state general revenue would be needed to raise rates to this level.

Families with Babies & Toddlers: Register Now for the May 11th RI Strolling Thunder Virtual Rally!

April 25, 2022

We need families from all 39 Rhode Island cities and towns to ask elected officials to support state policies and funding that helps families with babies and young children get off to the right start! This includes advocating for passage of:

  • The RI Child Care is Essential Act, to help more families access high-quality child care;
  • The RI Early Educator Investment Act, to reduce turnover and improve compensation of early educators;
  • The RI Early Intervention & First Connections Act, to eliminate the Early Intervention waiting list which is delaying access to services for infants and toddlers with developmental challenges

How we need your help:

  • Register by Friday, May 6th for the Strolling Thunder Virtual Rally and submit a photo of your baby/child! The first family to register for Strolling Thunder (and participate on May 11th) from each Rhode Island city or town will receive a $25 thank you gift! Everyone who registers by May 1st will receive a Strolling Thunder Rally Kit in the mail.
  • Take one minute NOW to use our electronic advocacy tool to send a message to Governor McKee, your State Representative and State Senator urging support for Right from the Start priorities!
  • Show up for the Strolling Thunder Virtual Rally on Wednesday, May 11th! We will send you the Zoom link for the virtual rally that will take place from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m.

No advocacy experience is necessary.

We look forward to working with you as an advocate!

Strolling Thunder Stories – Parent Asiata Teah: Essential Workers Struggle to Find Affordable Child Care

April 14, 2022

Providence resident Asiata Teah and her husband are both essential workers, but haven’t been able to afford consistent, high-quality child care for their two-year-old son despite having two incomes. Asiata returned to her work when their son was three months old, and has relied on family and friends to care for him for two and a half years. This support from her inner circle isn’t reliable, and Asiata struggles to maintain a full-time schedule at her job in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities.

“I plan my work schedule around their changing availability, and unfortunately they can’t always follow through. I’ve had to call out of work, I can’t pick up extra shifts, and I’m constantly late for work,” said Asiata. “Although my manager has been accommodating so far, missing out on work means I lose income. It hurts our family financially and is damaging my career to not have consistent child care.”

Asiata’s household income is too high to qualify for Child Care Assistance Payment (CCAP), which would help her pay for a stable, high-quality learning environment for her son. If she was to pay the full price of child care out of pocket, it would be over 60% of the income she brings in, which is far above the level recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s affordability standard, which states that child care is only affordable if it costs no more than 7% of a family’s income.

“Prices are rapidly rising for everything from gas to housing to groceries, and it’s increasingly hard to make ends meet,” said Asiata. “If I was to pay for child care out of pocket, the cheapest option would still take up my entire paycheck.”

On top of the pressure of being an essential worker during a pandemic and the stress of an ongoing search for reliable child care she can afford, Asiata is also currently working towards earning her public health administration bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island.

“I just want the opportunity to work to help my community and support my family. In this country, you need a strong educational foundation to live comfortably and pursue your dreams,” said Asiata. “We need affordable options for early childhood education, which will allow parents of young children to work and further their education. We’re free to pursue our dreams if we know that our children are safe in a high-quality learning environment that prepares them for success once they start school.”

Asiata is still seeking a child care spot for her son so she can get to work without worrying about his care. She strongly urges legislators to support policies and funding that help the countless Rhode Island middle class families like hers access affordable, high-quality child care so they can work, regardless of income level.

Early Intervention: Dalisha’s Story

April 4, 2022

Dalisha’s first son, DJ, was born premature. By the time of his first birthday, delays in DJ’s development had become apparent.

Dalisha and her son were enrolled in Early Intervention at Children’s Friend. Her EI service provider evaluated DJ and helped Dalisha connect with speech and occupational therapy to support her son’s development.

A couple of years later, Dalisha’s second son Da’Marion was born and was also identified as needing Early Intervention services.

Dalisha says that without the support of Early Intervention, she would not be able to advocate for her children and see that their needs were met. “They helped me ask the pediatrician the right questions, and get the specialist referrals and evaluations my sons needed.”

With help from the Early Intervention team, DJ has now transitioned to Pre-K with special education services in place.

But while Dalisha is grateful for Early Intervention and her service providers’ responsiveness, systemic issues continue to create barriers for her family.

“There is a waiting list for everything now,” Dalisha says. Da’Marion is on a waiting list for the Children’s Neurodevelopment Center and related services at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Meanwhile, DJ is waiting for a slot to open up for ABA therapy.
“They said it could be up to six months.”

Dalisha wants state leaders in Rhode Island to know that without Early Intervention, she would not have even recognized her sons’ developmental delays. “As a new mom, you don’t know much. I wouldn’t have known what direction to take.”

Most of all, Dalisha credits Early Intervention with improving her advocacy skills as a parent.

“They helped me learn to speak up for my kids when I didn’t know how.”

Early Intervention: Naiommy’s Story

April 4, 2022

It is not a secret that High quality early intervention services can change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.

Intervention is likely to be more effective and less costly when it is provided EARLIER in life rather than LATER. Therefore, I personally don’t know where I would have been without my son’s early intervention services. It is already hard enough to balance many things as a parent, so having a team of support to better prepare me to meet my child’s learning, and social emotional development has been a blessing.

I understand how critical the first three years of life are for my son. This is why families benefit from Early Intervention by being able to better meet their children’s special needs from an early age and throughout their lives. I was fortunate to obtain these vital services right before the waitlist began and even though I have a great team it has not been an easy transition to have to obtain many of my services virtually. Though my team has gone above and beyond to provide quality services and provide in-person opportunities, we no longer can have services in my backyard during these winter days and my little one is not able to stay on video for more than 15 minutes.

More children need services than are currently being served, especially since the start of Covid-19. As an Afro Latina woman, I have seen firsthand how Covid has disproportionately affected our BIPOC community, MORE SO OUR LITTLE ONES that have had to enter this world during the Covid Pandemic. We deserve to do better for THEM, this is not a question of whether we should allocate funding for them and be flexible. It is a HUMAN RIGHT to receive quality services no child should be left without these vital supports!

— Naiommy Baret