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Online directories aim to improve the search for child care

India Witcher, lead teacher at Hart Christian Tabernacle Child Development Center, with her young charges in Washington. The city has launched a searchable child-care database.
India Witcher, lead teacher at Hart Christian Tabernacle Child Development Center, with her young charges in Washington. The city has launched a searchable child-care database. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)
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Nadia Villa still had six months of maternity leave stretched out before her, but she was getting nervous about finding day care for her son.

“All I heard about is how expensive it is and how difficult to find,” she said. “I didn’t even know where to start.”

So the new mother, who lives in Dupont Circle, posted an online request through a neighborhood forum early this month: Is anyone who has done their homework willing to share their list of centers?

For many parents in the District, the search for a day-care spot is frustrating and haphazard, involving word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and neighbors and a stroke of good luck.

Now, an increasing number of directories — both public and privately managed — are coming online in the District and also around the country to help parents navigate the search for quality child care.

Last fall, the District launched a website called My Child Care DC, with a database of 461 care options, including 351 centers and 110 home-based providers. And this month a parent, frustrated with the process, launched a fee-based search with information about more than 500 centers in the District and surrounding communities.

Parents pay extra to find child care in the right place at the right time

The District’s site was created to comply with federal requirements that call for states to provide consumer-friendly websites with information about quality, health, and safety standards, and specific information about each licensed provider, including hours of operation and recent inspection reports.

“Families are busy. This is the most stressful and important decision they have to make. We want to make sure they are getting access to all the information,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, assistant superintendent of early learning for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Virginia also launched a website to help families search for child care. And Maryland was one of the first states in the nation to have a database of regulated child-care providers and support for families searching for care, a service provided by the nonprofit Maryland Family Network. States have long maintained hotlines that parents can call for help finding licensed child care.

Growing research shows that the years before kindergarten are a critical time for learning, and that quality care in the first years has long-term benefits. In response, early educators have been working to define what quality means and to work with providers to improve their level of care.

More than 40 states have moved to develop quality rating systems for providers that accept federal funding. These ratings are available on new directories, along with more general information about quality markers that parents can look for during visits.

Searchable directories might help some families locate child-care centers they did not know about, but their overall impact will probably be limited, particularly for low-income families, because of the shortage of affordable care, said Katie Hamm, vice president for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.

“These directories won’t help you pay for child care or get off a waiting list,” she said.

In 2015, there were 7,610 licensed child-care slots in homes or centers for about 22,000 children younger than 3 in the District, according to a report by DC Appleseed and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. And the District is one of the most expensive places for child care in the country, with an average monthly cost of $1,868 for infant care at a center, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

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Meghan McCarthy said, as a new mother, she went into her child-care search assuming it was going to be expensive and difficult, but she found the “opaqueness” of the search particularly frustrating.

Most child-care providers did not post their costs online and it was often hard to get a director on the phone in the busy centers. Often she had to go in person to get information she needed, a process she found “unnecessary and antiquated in the era of smartphones and online reviews,” she said.

So the former journalist hired a professional pollster who conducted phone surveys of 560 licensed child-care providers in the District, Alexandria, Arlington, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and started her own business — Maternie — with an online directory that parents can access for a fee.

She said her research confirmed that the cost of care is much higher in the District than in surrounding areas. But she saw more variation in cost than she expected. “If I had shopped around, I could have saved $100 a week,” she said.

She surveyed providers about costs and waitlists, information that’s not currently available on the District’s site.

Other parents have developed online directories. CareLuLu was started in 2013 by two parents who struggled to find care in the Washington area. The site has a free search of licensed providers in the region, including photos of each center and some parent reviews.

Parents have also worked together to crowdsource information about child-care providers in their neighborhoods.

Tanya Snyder, also a journalist, said she did a “ton of research” when her first child was born and was surprised that she could not find more centralized information, particularly about home day-care providers: “There is one behind my house that I did not even know about,” she said.

She started a spreadsheet and figured she would share what she learned.

She posted a Google document to some online neighborhood forums with details about eight or nine centers and invited people to add to it.

Four years later, the spreadsheet has more than 100 entries across the city and includes details such as email addresses of directors, closest Metro stations, and notes from parents with details such as “only has windows in the infant room” and “the owner cooks a hot lunch every day.”

That spreadsheet landed in Villa’s inbox, after she sent out her query, along with a smattering of recommendations for individual child-care programs. “I’m just getting started,” she said.