Darlene Smith pushes her 9-month-old son Martez on a swing at Freedom Ridges park in Ridgeland on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Smith, a single mom, hasn't had child care since the state pushed her off the Child Care Payment Program, which offers assistance to low-income working parents, earlier this year. Credit: Anna Wolfe/Mississippi Today

A supervisor called Darlene Smith at her work-from-home office one afternoon this summer, wondering why she’d taken her 30-minute lunch break 30 minutes early.

She was changing her 6-month-old’s diaper and tending to her rambunctious 6-year-old.

“I thought I was about to lose my job,” Smith said. 

Smith had been receiving child care assistance through the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Child Care Payment Program for the last four years so she could hold a job.

In June, just a few months after her maternity leave ended, the agency put Smith through “redetermination” — essentially making her reapply for the program. It found her ineligible and abruptly ended her benefits.

Smith is one of thousands of Mississippi parents, according to a survey of child care centers, who have lost their child care certificate in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic, even while the state hoards over half-a-billion in unspent federal child care dollars. 

Typically, parents must prove they worked at least 25 hours every week in order to remain eligible for the assistance.

At her job as a customer service representative for an insurance company, where she answers calls and handles claims, Smith was working between 20 and 24 hours.

After Smith lost the voucher, she had to pull her daughter out of daycare, where the little girl was receiving uninterrupted attention. When they’re at home, Serenity, the 6-year-old, likes to rile up baby Martez, causing a squealing commotion. 

“I don’t have time to see what’s going on ‘cause I’m on the phone,” Smith said. “You gotta answer all your calls. You’ll get in trouble if you don’t answer your calls.”

Mississippi had the option to suspend the certificate program’s regular rules, including redetermination, during the ongoing health and economic crisis. 

But the state chose not to, straining both low-income households and the child care centers whose budgets rely on the government subsidy. 

“We’ve lost a lot of children because of redetermination,” said Patricia Young, owner of School of Champions Development & Learning Academy in Itta Bena. “Parents have not had that opportunity or chance to get back to work, to even look for a job. That’s really been hard.”

Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, which conducted the recent survey, estimates that between 3,600 and 4,100 parents lost their assistance during the recent redetermination process, which could translate to up to 7,300 children now lacking childcare.

As Mississippi’s welfare department has kicked parents off the child care voucher, Young said she’s watched her center’s revenue decrease and her blood pressure skyrocket.

At the same time, she’s taken on more responsibility because kids who used to attend her center part-time are there all day conducting virtual learning as the public schools navigate COVID-19.

“They’re opening and closing and opening and closing because of the virus,” Young said.

In Itta Bena, nearly half the residents live in poverty and the median household income is just over $17,000, so Young’s center relies on the government subsidy to stay in business.

“The (parents) I have are working at factories or food plants or at McDonalds. They cannot afford to pay for child care,” Young said. “That’s the purpose that I was thinking the certificate program was for, to help those parents who cannot otherwise afford child care.”

Mississippi has some of the least expensive child care costs in the nation, meaning providers are paid less here, leading to lower pay for child care workers and limited resources for early childhood development inside the centers.

Even so, economic conditions in Mississippi mean that a typical family still cannot afford care, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services standards, and must spend 22% of its income on child care.

The child care voucher, a critical work support for low-income families, is not extra cash in a parent’s pocket, but ensures kids have a safe place to go with supervision and socialization while they are at work.

The child care division’s COVID-19 emergency policy, filed in April of 2020, suspended work requirements for the child care program. It stated that once the governor determined child care was no longer in an emergency condition, clients would be given a 60 day period to begin searching for a job or enroll in school in order to remain eligible for the benefit. 

But providers told Mississippi Today that the department offered them no warning.

“The child care providers had no clue. They woke up one morning, checked their email and had termination, termination, termination, termination, termination,” said Debbie Ellis, owner of child care center The Learning Tree in Greenwood. “… I cannot imagine the benefit to the state.”

Mississippi Department of Human Services did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for interviews or comment for this story, which began in August, by the time of publication. The agency plans to host a virtual public hearing to gather comments about policies within the Child Care Payment Program tomorrow, September 21st, at 11 a.m.

Darlene Smith watches her 6-year-old daughter Serenity play on the jungle gym at Freedom Ridge park in Ridgeland on Saturday, September 19, 2019. Smith, who just received a promotion at work, must juggle caring for her two children and working as a customer service representative for an insurance company. Credit: Anna Wolfe/Mississippi Today

The American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March, provided a $15 billion supplement to the annual Child Care and Development Fund, which mainly funds the voucher program, and an additional $24 billion in child care stabilization grants for struggling providers. Mississippi received $200 million and $319 million, respectively, which it has yet to push out. 

Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, said the department has expressed reluctance to use the money to offer more vouchers because since the money is not permanent, parents may lose the benefit when the funding dries up.

“You don’t want to build up all this capacity and then not be able to sustain it,” Chad Allgood, director of MDHS’s Division of Early Childhood Care and Development, told PBS NewsHour during its series on child care that aired in July.

Burnett doesn’t buy it: “God forbid we serve another kid this year that we can’t serve four years from now when the money runs out,” she said.

The voucher has historically served just a fraction of the population, and Burnett estimates the program currently reaches roughly 25% of low-income children who need care. In the past, the state has chalked up the low number to federal funding shortfalls. Now, Burnett argues, the state has a chance to make a difference.

At the Sept. 9 meeting of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council, the group Gov. Tate Reeves appointed to advise him on early childhood education and child care, Allgood downplayed the magnitude of the department’s recent cash infusion.

“I think that will help somewhat, but it’s not the end-all answer. I think there’s still an issue of the expense of child care,” Allgood said. “And we do have subsidy assistance, but frankly, the normal funding that we get and even the additional money that we got to help provide subsidy, it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.”

He added: “We want to serve every family, you know, that’s eligible and that has a need, but the federal funding alone is not going to get it, not going to get us there.”

Providers complain that Allgood and DHS leadership are dragging their feet.

“Child care providers are closing their doors. Child care providers are being forced into quarantine without personal protective equipment, with over a half billion dollars sitting at DHS to stabilize existing businesses,” Ellis said.

Ellis said she expected more from the department and the child care division’s relatively new leadership, especially during the pandemic and unstable economy.

“But many are not surprised by the decisions that were made for redetermination,” Ellis said.

“Old school.”

At the recent State Early Childhood Advisory Council meeting, Allgood led a broad discussion about the status of early childhood in Mississippi.

“A very, very important question is, when we look at the access to these services, the experiences that the children and families are having as they’re accessing the services and the outcomes that are being provided through these services: Are they equitable?” Allgood said. “I think that’s going to be key. And I think ensuring equity across the board is something that we definitely need to make sure that we’re addressing within our early childhood system as a whole.”

The primary responsibility of Allgood’s division is to administer the federal Child Care Development Fund, the annual fund that supplies child care vouchers to low-income parents.

But in the nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting, Allgood made little mention of the state’s voucher program or how they planned to spend more than $500 million in extra child care dollars, nor did they discuss expanding the assistance to needy families.

Allgood did say the department plans to start accepting applications from child care centers for $319 million in direct stabilization grants on Oct. 1. That money goes directly to the providers. He did not provide any other specifics.

“We are working very diligently to try to get those out,” Allgood said. “What we have run up against is the federal government, they issued the money, but then the guidance came later. And so we have had to sort of, you know, plan as we go and we’ve asked questions and, you know, we’re still getting guidance from the feds.”

“Every single penny of that money will go directly to child care,” he added.

At least fourteen states have already opened stabilization grant applications according to the federal government and some, such as Illinois, began sending payments to providers as early as May.

“We’re way behind the implementation timeline,” said Burnett, who served as the state’s administrator of the Child Care Development Fund in the early 2000s.

Allgood said one hold up is that the department wants to train providers on how to track their spending.

“We, in turn, have to monitor child care providers on the use of the funding. If there’s a misuse of funding, inadvertently even, we do not want to have to go and recoup that money a year from now, that would be devastating,” Allgood said.

Providers have not received any information about what the stabilization grants to providers will look like — how much money they will be (Allgood called them “sizable”) or how they may be spent.

Burnett said she also worries about the scope of the grants.

“I think Mississippi is going to be really conservative in what — out of all the options that states can pick — Mississippi is going to choose,” Burnett said.

“I suspect we’re going to prioritize stuff over staff,” Burnett explained. “Bottles of bleach instead of wage stipends for workers.”

The department also hasn’t addressed the barriers parents face, such as the work requirement, in applying for child care assistance. Eight-in-10 child care centers say they serve parents who are eligible for the voucher but are unable to get approved, according to the recent survey. 

Ellis said parents can be denied or terminated from the program for as little as having an expired driver’s license.

Another hurdle to receiving the voucher is the state’s requirement that low-income parents, usually single moms, use state-contracted attorneys to go after their child’s father in court for child support money.

Often, family advocates say, it’s not that a mother wants to shirk child support, but that she has her own working arrangement with the father and wants to avoid making waves.

Kassandra Fisher, owner of Agape Love Learning Center in Greenwood, said that the requirement can cause problems even for parents who are already participating in the child support program. She said she’s seen parents lose their voucher simply for failing to provide the proper proof.

“We don’t have an office for child support in Greenwood, it’s in Grenada. So that’s another problem for parents,” Fisher said. “If I’m working that Monday and I can’t afford to take off, trying to make sure I got my (25) hours and you’re telling me I gotta meet the child support requirements. I got to try to get to Grenada because I might call the phone up, and it’s just so many people calling on the phone, I might not reach nobody. See, that what’s going on.”

“It’s kind of hard to tell people that are struggling to work to take off to go try to get a child support letter if they can’t get nobody on the phone,” Fisher said.

Eight-in-10 surveyed providers say the child support requirement discourages parents from applying, and 73% say it results in denials for their clients — both of which translate to an estimated 9,700 to 11,100 children in centers who are unable to access the voucher because of the state’s demand.

Dana Kidd, former deputy administrator of economic assistance for Mississippi’s welfare agency, admitted to Mississippi Today in 2018 that the requirement put mothers in a difficult position, “but that’s our state policy and federal regulations.”

State statute does not mandate that the department impose child support requirements on child care recipients, according to legal experts hired by Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. 

But a few months ago, when Burnett visited Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson to discuss eliminating the extra burden, Burnett said Anderson denied that the requirement was a deterrent to any parents in need of the voucher.

“They’ve quit arguing now that they’re mandated by state law,” Burnett said. “Now they’re saying it’s just not a problem.”

The state doesn’t require recipients of other types of government aid — the kind that often benefits middle class or wealthier families — to enter the state’s child support system to qualify. The state does not, for instance, impose this requirement on families receiving state-funded college scholarships or the business executives who secure millions in incentives from the state each year. 

Darlene Smith strolls through Freedom Ridge park in Ridgeland with her 9-month-old baby Martez on Saturday, September 19, 2021. Credit: Anna Wolfe/Mississippi Today

Burnett, who has advocated for working moms for over two decades, said the current state of child care in Mississippi isn’t just characterized by the state’s slow rolling out of federal grant funds; or its refusal to revisit the child support requirement; or its decision to redetermine eligibility during a pandemic; or its reluctance to use additional federal funding to supply more certificates.

“It’s all of it put together that results in parents that need child care not getting it,” Burnett said.

In Smith’s case, losing her child care — her punishment from the state for not working at least 25 hours — could have threatened her job altogether. 

She’s thankful her employer has been understanding. Her daughter returned to school in August, relieving some of the stress of juggling two kids and her job at home all day.

Just recently, as Smith was considering picking up a second job to get more hours, the insurance company gave her a promotion, bumping her to around 40 hours a week. It’s a sign of progress for this single mom, recognition of her tact with customers. 

Since the $12-an-hour job is currently remote, she’s making it work, however exhausting. 

Evenings are harder now. Smith is still working when Serenity gets off the bus after school. If Martez is napping, it won’t be for long.

“She’ll have him all hyped up, so I’ll be like, ‘Lord have mercy,’” she said. “I need to get her after school care and I need to get him in day care. That will help out a lot.”

“That’s not going to be possible without the voucher,” she added.

Child care centers say it can take 60 days for eligible applicants to be approved.

And Smith’s employer could call her back to the office any day now.

UPDATE: Two-and-a-half hours after publication of this story, Mississippi Department of Human Services supplied Mississippi Today with the following statement:

Parents and childcare providers were notified in February 2021, that redetermination would be put back in place beginning April 2021.  Additionally, per our policy, parents receive a 60-day notification and 30-day follow-up notification that their case is up for redetermination with instructions for completing the process.  Childcare providers receive a 30-day notice and have access to the Childcare Provider Portal, which allows them to review all certificate information, including redetermination deadlines, at any time.  While providers did not receive a written notification, as parents do, that information appears in the provider portal when the family’s case enters the redetermination period 60 days prior to their certificate/voucher end date.   

MDHS does not have a waitlist for certificates/vouchers.  We are processing applications, and any families that meet eligibility requirements receive a certificate/voucher for 12 months per ECCD policy.   Federal eligibility criteria limit MDHS.  For example, a household cannot exceed 85% of the state median income to be eligible for certificates/vouchers.   

Parents were notified via email which is how the Childcare Division handles beneficiary communication. Childcare providers were also notified in monthly Zoom information sharing session. Childcare providers have access to the Childcare Provider Portal regarding any of the children they care for in real time. The provider portal allows for a more secure transmission of children’s information in real-time to childcare providers. When certificates are up for redetermination, the notification shares the next steps to complete the redetermination 

ECCD provides an average of 20-22,000 children access to childcare each month.  

 ECCD issued temporary, 90-day emergency certificates to additional families who had never qualified for childcare vouchers during the pandemic.  Each of these emergency voucher families were given the opportunity to see if they would qualify for the program moving forward. Families in the pandemic related emergency certificates were eligible to apply for the 12-month childcare certificate. Emergency certificates reached their monthly peak in September 2020  with over 4,600. This is in addition to the 20-22,000 children enrolled in the traditional certificate program.   

Due to new Federal guidelines regarding the second round of stimulus funding (ARP) state that monies from ARP cannot be for the same purpose from CARES. Due to staffing levels, we want to ensure accountability of Cares Act funds; we are trying to ensure reports are received before the 2nd round of funding so it will not be problematic to the childcare providers from an accountability standpoint. To date, ECCD is still awaiting reports from over 300 childcare providers. Providers cannot receive ARP Stabilization Grants until their CARES funding reports have been filed. We believe that this policy is in the best interest of the providers and the state of Mississippi as the trustee of the stimulus funds.   

The Federal government requires childcare providers to be in good financial standing. Childcare centers must provide supporting documentation to show they are in good standing to receive additional funding from the ARP Stabilization Grants. ECCD distribution of ARP Stabilization Grants directly to Childcare providers will be exponentially more significant than the CARES Act Booster Shots.  

Due to staffing levels, we want to ensure accountability of all Cares Act funds. ECCD is attempting to close out all open grants related to the CARES funding before opening the 2nd round of funding. To date, ECCD is still awaiting reports from over 300 childcare providers. Providers cannot receive ARP Stabilization Grants until their CARES funding reports have been filed with ECCD. We believe that this policy is in the best interest of the providers and the state of Mississippi as the trustee of the stimulus funds.  

To date, all CARES Act money has been dispensed. None of the funds have come back from providers. 

New policies put in place over the past year include:  

1) Covering parent Copays for families at or below the poverty line amounting to between $800,000 – $1,000,000 in additional payments per month going to providers.   

2) ECCD is also paying an enhanced rate of an additional 25% from April 2020 to December 2022;  

3) Payments are based on enrollment, not attendance. If the child stays home, the providers will still get the funds for that child. This is a permanent policy change. 

4) Removed child support as countable income when calculating eligibility for childcare vouchers.  This goes into effect 10/1. This change will lower the income requirements. 

MDHS has not had a waitlist in 4 years. (Editor’s note: Mississippi Department of Human Services reportedly cleared the Child Care Payment Program wait list in 2018, less than three years ago). We are serving every family that is eligible and applies that needs assistance. 

MDHS is monitors all relief funding to (1) ensure we comply with all funding requirements;(2) ensure that the funding to sustain childcare providers stretches as far as it can reach. 

To date, fourteen (14) states have activated the ARP funding. Most recently, Louisiana opened but ended up closing their distribution for unknown reasons. 

In reference to the additional public hearing and policy changes. Public hearings are required by law to gather comments on policy changes. Policy manual update proposals were shared at the public hearing and posted online with an email address for written comments. 

ECCD recently undertook a market survey from childcare providers 

  • 92% approval on how ECCD handled the pandemic CARES Funds. 

Last year, ECCD spent 85% of discretionary funds on vouchers, 10 % higher than the federally mandated 75% of discretionary funds. 

Once a child is qualified and the voucher is approved, it is good for 12 months.  The parent is given a 60-day notice before the voucher eligibility expires. They will need to be verified.  During Covid, the Feds temporarily waived the CCDF redetermination. As of April 2021, redetermination is back in place unless the feds waive the requirement again. 

MDHS does not have a waitlist for certificates/vouchers.  We are processing applications, and any families that meet eligibility requirements receive  a certificate/voucher for 12 months per policy.  MDHS is limited by federal requirements in terms of eligibility criteria.  For example, a household cannot exceed 85% of the state median income to be eligible for certificates/vouchers.  MDHS monitors all relief funding to (1) ensure we comply  with all funding requirements and (2) ensure we’re using the funding to sustain childcare providers for as long as possible. CCDF, once we have a parent and voucher is given out is good for 12 months.  The parent is given a 60- day notice before the voucher eligibility. They will need to be verified.  During Covid, the Feds temporarily waived the CCDF redetermination, but now the CCDF determination is required unless we request a waiver from the Feds. 

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.