YMCA experiencing growth, some pain

Brian Larsen

No question the Cook County YMCA has been a success.

With over 90,000 visits in 2016 and more than 1,800 members, Cook County is no longer the smallest Y in Minnesota. But with growth there have been some bumps in the road.

Two weeks ago it was reported that the Minnesota Department of Human Services (MDHS) cited the Cook County YMCA Busy Bees childcare program for neglect of a child, which resulted in a $1,000 fine and the Y’s license to practice family childcare put on conditional status for one year. The incident the Y was cited for occurred in November 2016.

Late last week Cook County Public Health & Human Services announced it had received another child maltreatment report from the Y. This time it concerned the YMCA Kids Club drop-in childcare program where a three-year-old child being cared for in the facility was reported to have left the room unnoticed.

According to the report, the child reportedly left the Kid’s Club and went looking for their parent in the workout area, unknown to the on-duty staff. The child was unharmed and did not leave the YMCA building and was reunited with their parent.

“The county reviews and responds to all reports that have the potential to meet the guidelines for maltreatment,” said Joshua Beck, director – Public Health & Human Services. “We take this responsibility seriously and child safety is paramount.”

The current missing child report occurred in a legal non-licensed drop-in childcare program. These programs fall into a gray area, said Beck.

“Because they are licensed exempt, they do not fall under the county’s licensing authority, and yet similarly as licensed exempt childcare they are not under our child protection jurisdiction,” Beck said.

The current missing child report will be referred to local law enforcement to determine if an investigation is warranted. The safety of the children of Cook County is the highest priority, said Beck.

When contacted on Thursday, May 18, Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen said his department was currently in the midst of an investigation into the latest incident that happened at the Y. “Yes, we are looking into it,” Eliasen said.

With childcare in critical need in the county, the Y has reached out to alleviate some of that shortage.

At the March 28 county board meeting YMCA Director Emily Marshall and former Cook County Commissioner Sue Hakes came before the county board and Marshall presented the 2016 YMCA Annual Report.

Part of that report dealt with a $24,211 shortfall in the 2016 budget, and Marshall explained why that occurred.

“Some of the reason for the overages in 2016 were the shift in custodial in the fall (contracting with the school or county was more expensive than when we were doing it ourselves), but the result was also better, so you get what you pay for and maintaining the facility, and doing preventive maintenance will have a great return on investment.

“Other reasons for the overage are the three daycare start-ups. We spent the first half of 2016 exploring options and models to support the massive waitlists (at one point we had 60 kids on the waiting list). We looked at churches, Tomteboda property, Cascade’s new facility and Lutsen) and finally settled on what used to be the teacher’s lounge on the wing of the school closest to the Y. The big need at the time (which continues to be a need) was infant/toddler care, so we decided to invest in that knowing that this first year we would most likely take a loss but it was a risk we were willing to take and have now created a model that will be more sustainable with our two programs on-site.

“After opening that site, the waiting list continued to grow and the Cooperation Station was facing some serious challenges which were going to most likely force them to close their doors so we decided to get involved there knowing that that too would most likely result in a loss. We did seek grant funding to help cover the deficit but it was late in the year, and a lot of our resources had already been tapped. We did get grants for a start-up, but not a lot of granting foundations will cover ongoing operations. This year, we have a model in place that we can support financially, but still are looking for ways to become even more sustainable long-term as we continue to adapt to meet community need…” Marshall said.

At the end of this month, May 31, 2017, the Y will no longer be associated with the Cooperation Station Daycare.

Child care programs at the Y include Little Ladybugs (ages 6 weeks to 16 months) and Busy Bees (16 months- 33 months) which currently each hold a separate license through the county as family childcare programs. Under the new model, Wiggle Worms will be moved to the YMCA at the end of May and will serve ages 33 months and older.

“This program meets exclusion 5 in licensing rules as a legal non-licensed program,” said Marshall. “However, the YMCA is currently applying through the State of Minnesota Department of Human Services to become a licensed child care center. Once the center license is obtained, the family childcare licenses will be closed and the Y will continue to operate all three of the programs as one center under the jurisdiction of the state licensing department.”

Cook County’s role in childcare

Just how this latest incident will affect the Y’s application to become a licensed child care center is unknown at this time, but at the Cook County Public Health and Human Services meeting on Tuesday, May 16, Joshua Beck said a study should be done to determine how much and what type of child care is needed in Cook County.

“We need real data,” said Beck. “We need to slow down and get the data right.” A study done by a professional firm would be the driving force for what the county needs to do, or not do, he added.

Beck suggested it was too late in this cycle to qualify for a grant to hire a consultant, but he also felt that the next granting cycle in September or October would be longer than the county should wait. He told commissioners he could look to his budget for money or talk to Auditor/ Treasurer Braidy Powers to see if there was enough funds in the county coffers to send out Request for Proposals (RFPs) to consultants so a study could happen sooner rather than later.

“I don’t want to see anyone on a wait list that can’t get quality child care in Cook County,” said Beck.

A study could include data gathered by surveying parents and businesses to see what each of their needs are and through focus groups to look at child care issues, said Beck. Town hall meetings held throughout the county would also be incorporated in the process.

Options to provide additional day care in the county could include paying people more per child who do in-home child care, but Beck said the county doesn’t have a financial mechanism to do that, so other options (grants) would have to be sought so that could happen.

Or, said Beck, if the need is big enough, the county could look at establishing a childcare center. “But right now we don’t know what the needs are, that’s why a study is so important” he said.

The county board voted to give Beck the go ahead to pursue RFPs so a study can begin countywide.

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