La Toyia Williams has a simple plea for officials who administer California's subsidized child-care program: Deliver in a timely fashion the quality child care that was promised to impoverished families like hers.
Social advocates say there are too many mothers like Williams, struggling to move from welfare to work but running up against a child-care system that is complex, confusing and more a barrier than a help.
On Tuesday, a group called the Welfare Reform Coalition held a news conference at a Los Angeles family day-care center to launch a campaign to fix what members say is a broken system that often keeps families in poverty.
The coalition wants the state and Los Angeles County to provide more personalized services for families moving from welfare to work, to dedicate more child-care resources to the working poor and to simplify the rules that govern child-care programs.
Williams, a Bellflower mother of four children, faced numerous hurdles that critics say are built into the system. She began working last May as a certified nursing assistant. But she said it took more than eight months--as well as dozens of phone calls and countless bus trips to the welfare office--before she finally began receiving reimbursements for the child-care expenses she had had to pay out of her own pocket.
"They sent me from office to office to office, and had me filling out the same papers over and over," she said at the news conference. "No one could tell me why it took so long, even though under welfare reform I'm entitled to subsidized child care."
The campaign comes amid recent reports suggesting that, as mothers leave welfare, their children suffer because of inadequate child care. UC Berkeley and Yale University researchers, for example, reported last week that poor working mothers in California and other states often are forced to leave their youngsters with inexperienced caregivers who are not providing needed educational and social activities.
Underscoring concerns about the system, thousands of Los Angeles County families making the transition from welfare to work were threatened recently with the loss of child-care subsidies because of a $65-million shortfall in state funding.
The county used its own child-care reserves to make up the difference. But the incident prompted the Board of Supervisors to dispatch a letter to Gov. Gray Davis last month, urging better methods of projecting needs and administering funds. On Tuesday, the board directed its staff to negotiate a number of lease amendments so that new welfare offices can include child-care facilities.
There are indications the state is listening to complaints. Part of the governor's recently proposed budget calls for an administrative review of child-care policies and ways to use resources better.
Welfare reform guaranteed subsidized child care so that newly working parents could hang on to their jobs or stay in training programs. Families are eligible while they are receiving cash aid and for as long as 24 months after leaving welfare rolls.
But critics say the system cannot improve as long as child-care programs continue to be administered by two state agencies. The state Department of Social Services provides help for families new to the welfare-to-work program, and the Department of Education handles programs for families with more stable job and child-care arrangements, as well as for those who are off welfare but remain eligible.
Both agencies have separate rules and eligibility requirements. While the system in theory is supposed to be seamless, critics say families are falling through the cracks.
The Welfare Reform Coalition has proposed consolidating the system under one state agency with one set of rules. The proposal has been endorsed by many service providers but state and county officials say it is too soon to give up on their current system.
"Yes, there are growing pains," conceded Kathy Lewis, a deputy superintendent for child, youth and family services in the state Department of Education. "When you start up a new system," and try to put it in place "in a county as big as Los Angeles, it's going to take time to get everything resolved."
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.