SANTA FE SPRINGS — When the city sent out a survey in 1981 about the needs of working parents, it received a loud and clear message.
More than 85% of the residents responded, and they overwhelmingly said that child care for the children of working parents was hard to find and what was available was often too expensive. Many single parents said that the lack of affordable child care kept them from working. And parents said they worried about leaving children at home alone, as so-called latchkey children.
"The latchkey problem actually was the No. 1 problem. Even during the survey, we found children who opened the doors for us," as city survey takers went door-to-door, said Gus Velasco, assistant city manager.
The city responded in a way that is novel in Los Angeles County: It dipped into its general fund to set up and subsidize its own child-care centers with special emphasis on latchkey children.
That unique approach helped put the city in a good position when it applied to get a share of the first money the state has appropriated specifically for latchkey programs. The state Department of Education last week announced that Santa Fe Springs will receive $100,723. Seventy-one proposals had been submitted from Los Angeles County, but only 44--including Santa Fe Springs'--will receive funds, according to Robert Cervantes, assistant superintendent of the department's child development division.
Santa Fe Springs' share of state dollars is intended to make child care more accessible to low-income families, said Dorothy Fairchild, children services supervisor, who oversees the Los Nietos Park and Lakeview Park child-care centers.
$10 Minimum Weekly Fee
Fees now range from $10 to $37.50 per child per week, depending on family income. Even a $10 fee, though, can be steep for the parent with several children, Fairchild said, but the city currently cannot "afford to subsidize fees to any greater extent." The city finances $257,400 of the centers' $340,300 annual budget from general funds. Parents' fees provide $82,900 a year.
"We're very pleased. We wanted the money to create access to child care for all residents," she said. The state funds "will subsidize those people that could not otherwise afford to pay the fees."
But City Manager Don Powell said he looked upon the grant as allowing the city to expand child-care services. Powell said the state grant would allow the city to lower its subsidy. Instead, he said, he will ask the City Council in early March to keep its funding at the same level so it will have seed money for a preschool child-care center. That way, he said, the city can "provide a wider base of child-care services." Preschool care is provided on a limited basis at one center.
The city has formed an ad-hoc committee to study subsidizing preschool care for the children of residents and "industrial" residents--the estimated 75,000 people who work in the city--near the proposed Heritage Park, on Telegraph Road and Norwalk Boulevard.
The city had originally planned to put a preschool center in the first phase of the Heritage Corporate Center that will begin construction in March. But it delayed that while the city looks at various ways to finance the construction and operation of the center.
Subsidies for Families
Santa Fe Springs now has enrolled in its city program 15 preschoolers as well as 105 children, ages 5 to 14, who receive before- and after-school care. Fairchild said enrollment at the centers would not increase with state funding, but that 50% of the families would be eligible for subsidized child care.
"Those people who are hanging on by their toes right now will have some relief," Fairchild said. As openings occur, the centers will be able to serve more low-income families.
The two centers at Lakeview Elementary School and Los Nietos Park are open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Teachers walk school-age students to their individual schools. They are picked up again after school and are brought to the center until parents come pick them up.
Because the centers are a branch of the city's social services division, other kinds of services are also available to the children and their parents. "Our child-care programs are much more than isolated facilities that just provide child-care," Fairchild said.
The centers also offer tutoring, preschool care for the siblings of enrolled school-age children and access to the city psychologist.
Children Receive Calls
There is now a waiting list of 117 children. To help those children, the city started a telephone reassurance program for those between 10 and 14. College students and senior citizens are trained to serve as telephone counselors who call the children enrolled in the program daily to be sure they are OK.
"There is no viable alternative to a center, but when there's not enough space, it's better than nothing," Fairchild said.
Parents who have their children in the two centers in operation praise the city's program.
"I'm a lot more at peace knowing that they're there," Lydia Rubalcava said. She has two school-age sons enrolled.
Another parent, Michael Sanchez, said he suddenly found himself in custody of his 7-year-old daughter last year.
"If this program wasn't here, I don't think I'd be able to do it. I wouldn't know where to go," said Sanchez, 30, who is currently unemployed.
The Santa Fe Springs centers began a national voluntary accreditation process last month that would recognize them as quality programs.
The accreditation by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs--a division of the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, the largest organization of early childhood educators--would give "extra assurance to parents that their children are in a quality environment," Fairchild said.