Oklahoma's population is on the rise, but the number of daycare centers across the state is shrinking significantly.
In fact, there are just over 3,300 licensed daycares statewide right now. That’s down from almost 6,000 back in 2005.
The decrease is hurting families as well as businesses.
For Vanessa Tice, often the only way she can work is by holding her child because in Kingston by Lake Texoma, where she lives, there are currently zero licensed daycares. They've all closed.
A solution seemed at hand this year when local businessman Jerry Dupree began the process of turning an old doctor's office into a daycare center.
“It seemed like a really good deal,” Dupree said. “Until we started crunching the numbers.”
Dupree said he could have justified losing a little bit of money, but it was a lot he was going to lose.
“We can’t lose two grand a month. There’s not a business in Oklahoma that would operate like that,” he said.
Dupree scrapped the plan.
“No educated person would go into this business,” said daycare owner Kent Lynn.
Lynn speaks from 15 years' worth of experience. He said increased regulation and decreased funding have made it hard for daycares, especially those serving low-income families, to break even. He had to close a center in the metro this year due to low attendance.
“The parents just couldn’t afford their co-payments so they could bring their kids. They wanted to, but they just couldn’t afford it,” Lynn said.
It's been happening a lot.
In 2005, there were 5,887 licensed day care homes and centers in Oklahoma. As of this summer, the number was down to 3,321, a 43 percent decline.
There are 21,000 fewer daycare slots today than 12 years ago and an estimated 300,000 kids in Oklahoma without access to child care.
“Who’s looking after those kids?” asked Jennifer Phillips with the OK Child Care Association. “Unregulated facilities. And, at that point, you have to wonder about the quality of care.”
Unregulated or unlicensed day care centers are, with some exceptions, illegal in Oklahoma.
Since 2013, DHS has received 682 complaints of unlicensed child care operations. In 280 of those cases, the complaint was substantiated; in nine cases, a child died.
DHS said that is why they have high licensing standards and why they go after those without licenses.
“They’re caring for children with no oversight of health and safety requirements. And that could be, that could be potentially very dangerous for children,” said Lesli Blazer with DHS Child Care Services.
But many in the industry feel DHS is, at least partly, responsible for that danger, saying the agency’s inflexibility with daycare rules has made an already challenging business simply not worth the effort for many providers.
“There’s so much drama with DHS that they just shut their doors,” said Phillips. “Some of them are forced to. Some of them just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
DHS officials said the issue isn't over regulation, it's funding. Oklahoma's child care subsidies, which go to about 31,000 children, are only about half the market rate and haven't been raised in a decade.
Blazer said, “And I really look to the Legislature to fund us properly. And if we receive what we need, we can help more families, and we could help child care providers stay in business.”
Or, open a new one.
“We can’t do it. Not unless something changes,” Dupree said.