Finding child care in Maryland is hard. Finding the right child care is even harder.


When Stephanie Jovine searched for child care for her nearly 4-year-old daughter LuzMarie in Prince George’s County in 2015, she found two options, both of them bad. Jovine couldn’t afford the first one, and the second denied the young girl snacks and then sheets for sleeping.

“I was so upset, you know, it was so hard to trust anyone,” said Jovine, a teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools at the time.

After six months of searching, Jovine found a grandmother who ran a small before-and-after care service, LiLi’s Child Care Center, in Temple Hills. The times the program was open aligned perfectly with Jovine’s needs.

“She’s a godsend, for real,” said Jovine, who’s now 33.

Jovine’s arduous search for child care is not unique — and it would not even be her last search. Interviews with several Maryland families showed that while finding child care is hard, finding a facility that fits a family’s needs and budget is even harder.

Maryland offers a rating system to help parents select the right child care facility, but providers say the rating system is difficult to navigate. Most parents interviewed by the Local News Network said they never looked at the state rating system.

Similarly, the state offers a generous scholarship program to help pay for child care, but providers complain they often have to wait months for the state to pay for child care for those scholarship recipients. Parents like Jovine struggle with the scholarship program, too.

The complications of finding child care in Maryland often leave families waiting for a place for their child, and that can lead to trouble, said Doug Lent, communications director for Maryland Family Network, which helps parents find child care and helps providers manage their businesses.

“When you’re on that waiting list, that’s when you’re more likely to be tempted to rely on unlicensed care, unregulated care, and get into a situation that’s maybe not safe or maybe not high quality,” Lent said.

The ratings dilemma

Linda Garey woke up at 6 a.m. on a springtime Saturday at her home in Dundalk to create a communication board for the autistic children she cares for daily in her home. Eleven hours later, she was still working on the project. She isn’t paid for the time she spends preparing her classroom.

Garey is a level-3 provider with Maryland EXCELS, the child care quality rating system in the state that offers a top rating of 5 to the state’s top child care centers. Garey created a 65-page handbook outlining her teaching philosophy. She also assists other programs with their handbooks.

“I’ve typed probably about 20 to 30 handbooks and turned them in for other people, right? And they’re all level 5,” she said.

EXCELS – which stands for “Excellence Counts in Early Learning and School Age Care” – is an optional program for licensed child care providers. It offers them training and guidance and, if they qualify for it, a rating that parents can refer to when choosing a place to care for their child.

The Maryland EXCELS rating is based on five categories: licensing, staff qualifications, accreditation, developmentally appropriate practices and administrative policies. The highest overall rating a facility can get is the lowest rating it gets in any of those five categories.

And even though Garey has more than 20 years of experience, her lack of national accreditation as a child care provider means she can’t go higher than level 3.

Garey is working on getting her child development associate credential and becoming accredited — but she won’t be submitting that information to Maryland EXCELS. She said whenever she submits new documents and information to the Maryland State Department of Education, it goes to waste.

“’I turned in some information about 20 times and it was denied,” she said.

State officials insist they are trying to help. Jena Smith, the director of quality improvement initiatives at the state’s Division of Early Childhood, said quality assurance specialists work with each child care facility to improve its quality rating.

The Maryland State Department of Education also publishes a provider toolkit that outlines the documents necessary to rise up the ratings ladder, Smith said. The requirements for each level build on the last, she said.

“It’s a scaffold, and so that’s really how our quality assurance specialists work with our programs,” Smith said. “They help them assess where they currently are and where they want to go.”

Since January 2020, the number of level-5 providers in Maryland has increased by 9.6%, according to state statistics retrieved by the Local News Network. However, 15 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions have lost level-5 providers, and providers overall appear to have mixed feelings about the EXCELS program.

Asked to rate the EXCELS program’s effectiveness on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being least effective and 5 being most effective, the 256 child care providers who replied to a Local News Network survey gave the program an average rating of 3.

“I answered 3 because part of the program, I feel, has been extremely helpful, such as writing policies for guidance (on) nutrition and such,” Cheryl Thomsen, a child care provider in Salisbury, wrote in her survey response. “I did obtain accreditation but found it was very difficult to actually follow all the requirements properly on a daily basis.”

A difficult search

Jovine moved from Prince George’s County to Charles County in 2020 and left teaching. Two years later, she returned to the District of Columbia Public Schools system while pregnant with her second child — only to discover searching for child care was still difficult and time-consuming.

“I was looking and looking and looking for child care,” she said.

Jovine experienced exactly what other young mothers have experienced in recent years. She went on a frantic search for child care without referring to the state’s EXCELS ratings.

Priya Mahfooz’s son Zakir was born in May 2019. She sent Zakir to a child care facility near the family home in Clarksburg, in Montgomery County, a few months later. But that operation shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, never to reopen.

Desperate for child care, Mahfooz and a friend banded together to hire the teacher who ran that closed facility to look after their children. Each family paid the teacher $425 a week.

In the summer of 2021, Mahfooz decided to send Zakir back to a child care facility. During her search, Mahfooz said, she didn’t rely on Maryland EXCELS or the state inspection reports.

“When you’re searching, it’s really just whatever you’re being fed in your feeds,” Mahfooz said. “You’re thinking about price, location, [online] ratings.”

Mahfooz found a child care slot for Zakir later that summer in Germantown and then enrolled him in Green Valley Montessori School in September 2021.

Meanwhile, Javiera King, an administrator at the University of Maryland, had to hire a nanny to take care of her young daughter, Layla, while the family searched for a slot in a child care facility.

While pregnant, “I had to put myself on a waitlist already because most day cares have a waitlist a year out,” she said.

King’s nanny gave her two weeks notice in December 2023. That meant King had to quickly piece together a schedule where family members took turns caring for her daughter, who was 11 months old at the time. The family then found a child care facility that had a part-time slot for Layla, meaning the family’s piecemeal plan for caring for the young girl would continue.

Finally, in February, Layla’s part-time slot at that facility became full-time.

“We were really lucky with how everything played out for us,” King said.

Jovine wasn’t so lucky. When she was five months pregnant with her second child, she called 12 child care facilities. All of them had a waiting list of a year or more for infants.

Her daughter Lily was born at the end of February 2023, and Jovine finished the school year on maternity leave. She had to go back to work in August, but the earliest availability at most nearby child care facilities was in October.

“There was one spot that had an availability. I wasn’t too satisfied with it,” Jovine said.

There were few toys and learning tools. The outdoor play equipment was dirty and the facility had no curriculum for promoting development in infants, Jovine said.

She found another option on a billboard. Jovine called that facility and when she found they had a spot, she took it. She only took three days off work to care for Lily.

The facility Jovine sent Lily to after a 10-month search is enrolled in the EXCELS program but is not yet rated.

Asked if she referred to the EXCELS system during her search, Jovine said she didn’t even know about the state rating system at the time.

Jovine has seen her daughter develop significantly at the day care. Lily is happy to go and a little reluctant to leave in the evenings, Jovine said.

“This is how I know she’s in good hands. She likes it there,” she said.

A scholarship program

In addition to offering ratings of the state’s child care providers, Maryland expanded its child care scholarship program in 2022, making it easier to afford child care, said Heather Harding, coordinator at the Federalsburg Judy Center in Caroline County.

But providers said the scholarship program doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory.

The eligibility requirements for the scholarship program allow middle-class families to apply. Any family of two making less than $61,222 per year is eligible; for a family of four, the limit is $104,438.

A new fast-track program, launched on July 1, 2023, aims to reduce the wait time for parents to receive approval for a scholarship. Three days after applying, eligible families can get 60 days of child care paid for while their long-term aid application is processed. Scholarship values each year can range from $9,000 to $25,000 per child.

Lent, of the Maryland Family Network, said the new fast-track has vastly improved the scholarship program. Previously, parents would be placed on a waiting list to receive help with their child care expenses, he said.

But other requirements can make the system a catch-22, Harding said. Parents are required to be enrolled in school or working to be eligible for the scholarship, she said. But many of them can’t do either unless they have child care guaranteed.

“Even if they find it, then they can’t pay for it till they get the scholarship,” Harding said.

These scholarships can only be used in facilities that are enrolled in the EXCELS program. After parents receive a voucher from the state, they present it to the provider. The provider then has to send paperwork to the state in order to be paid.

Garey, the child care provider from Dundalk, said this is one of the most frustrating parts about the process. Multiple times, she filed paperwork and had to wait three months to be paid. At one point, the state owed her $15,000 in scholarship pay. This happened after the state moved to an advance-payment system that was supposed to provide providers with income more quickly.

“It’s this delay after delay after delay,” Garey said.

She finds ways to deal with the months-late payments because she refuses to make the parents pay or to drop families from her list of clients.

“One little girl is nonverbal. She sang and pointed to every single letter of the alphabet,” Garey said. “I did that. So why in the world would I drop that family?”

Other providers also complain about late scholarship payments. Christine Morris, the director of Trinity Lutheran Christian School and Early Learning Center in Joppa, in Harford County, said this spring that the state owed her $40,000 in scholarship payments. And Shantel Rouzer, who runs a facility in Baltimore City, said she turned away students on the scholarship program because she knows the state’s reimbursements will come so late.

“It’s not the families’ fault, but (Maryland State Department of Education officials) don’t hear us!!!?? And providers are tired!!!” Rouzer wrote in response to a survey from the Local News Network.

Solving her own problem

Parents like Jovine don’t always know about the scholarship program. When she found out about the program in February, months after Lily, her youngest daughter, started day care. Jovine applied, and a day later, the program’s new fast-track program temporarily covered child care for two months.

“It took a huge load, And it’s amazing to have that option,” she said.

Before that, Jovine was paying $1,360 per month for child care for Lily. On top of that, she had to provide snacks, milk, lunch and other resources to the center.

But four days before Jovine’s temporary aid expired, she hadn’t gotten a final decision from the state. Jovine didn’t receive a response until June. By then, she was already paying out of pocket.

She’ll have to continue to do so because the state decided she was earning too much money to qualify. Noting her application listed extra money from her old job at D.C. Public Schools that doesn’t reflect what she’s making now, she has reapplied.

Jovine and her longtime partner, Abdul Dopson, now need child care more than ever. Their third child, Mia, was born on June 14.

Knowing infant spots are difficult to find, Jovine decided to leave her teaching job — and do her own small part to alleviate Maryland’s child care shortage.

“I got licensed to start a day care myself: a home day care,” she said. “The need is that prevalent, you know, I might as well try to open up a day care myself and see what happens.”

Jovine’s fledgling child care facility, Elite Kidz Clubhouse, opens in August — but it’s already overtaken her home’s living room and dining room. She’s spent more than $2,500 on cots, desks, developmentally appropriate toys and other necessities.

A large, colorful tree painted on the wall of the facility showcases the skills Jovine wants her students to get out of their day-to-day activities. Jovine said she wants her facility to work its way through the EXCELS system and eventually qualify as a preschool under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the state’s education reform plan.

“Why not start this beautiful generation how it should, educating them and giving them what they need to be successful little children?” she said.

Local News Network reporter Laura Shaughnessy contributed to this report.

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