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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Suffolk day care funding cuts hit home hard

Children do handicrafts at a day care center

Children do handicrafts at a day care center for children in this file photo. (Dec. 22, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Samantha Orellana, a widowed mother of a 2- and a 3-year-old, says she works two jobs and doesn't "want to live on the welfare system forever."

But Orellana said that since her husband died last year after being hit by a car, "my children and I have not been able to catch a break." Her son and daughter were among 2,200 Suffolk children of the working poor who have lost their day care since January.

"I need day care and I can't afford it," Orellana said in testimony submitted to the county Welfare to Work Commission for a report. "Day care helps single and widowed moms like myself give the children a safe, nurturing environment to learn, explore and socialize . . . [it] gives us peace of mind."

Suffolk has lost $3.5 million in federal day care aid at a time when it has experienced a 47 percent increase in demand for child care services since 2009, according to the commission report..

The cuts occurred because of changes in the state aid formula, which does not allow the county to factor in the federal stimulus money it received in 2010 to calculate future needs.

Suffolk officials have had to cut eligibility for the working poor in half, from 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $46,100 in income for a family of four -- to the federal poverty level of $23,050 for the same size family.

Nassau has not faced the same challenges. Enrollment declined slightly by about 100 cases over the past year to about 5,400, according to the Nassau Department of Social Services. The county also received a $5 million increase in state funding over the past year.

Experts say the day care reductions in Suffolk undercut the aim of welfare reform to give the poor enough help to enable them to get off public assistance and support their families. The cutbacks could prompt working parents to cut back their hours or return to public assistance so they can qualify under the more stringent income limits, experts said.

"I don't know what to call it other than dysfunction," said Richard Koubek, commission co-chairman.

Orellana said she tried to cover child care herself, but wound up with a baby-sitter who neglected her children. "I fired her immediately and almost got arrested because I was so angry," she said.

The commission warns that beyond the impact on individuals, the aid losses could undercut the Suffolk day care industry of 924 licensed providers. The study showed that 69 providers, about 7 percent, have stopped day care operations. The commission said the cuts will mean a $17 million loss of annual revenues for providers and result in 400 layoffs of child care workers.

Adrian Fassett, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk Inc., a nonprofit in Patchogue that aids low-income people, said the number of children in their day care programs dropped from 125 in May to about 50 in October. Fassett called the situation a "true emergency."

"We have to man up on this," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). "This is happening everywhere. Centers are closing. Our children need to have a safe place to go."

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