San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Head Start For Tico Kids

Floribeth Umaña balanced a baby girl on her hip as she helped stack a tower of LEGOs with a 7-year-old and fielded questions from the little boy beside her.

Periodically, she took a LEGO out of the baby’s mouth and shushed the other kids, who crescendoed in a play for attention. Her little home in Guadalupe, a northeastern San José suburb, seemed full of life, but really, it was a quiet day for Umaña, who’s used to having 10 children there each day (nearly double the amount present when The Tico Times paid her a visit).

Umaña opened her home a half decade ago to neighborhood women who were in need of a place to leave their children when they went to work.

In order to offer her services to her neighbors, while still making a living herself, she joined the Hogares Comunitarios (community homes) network, a government program that gives stipends for women to provide child care for neighbors in their homes.

These home-based day care centers, which were born during the administration of former President Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994), have provided an answer for many of the growing number of mothers entering the workforce, freeing them to pursue an income in addition to motherhood.

And it is programs like this that President Laura Chinchilla hopes to build upon in constructing a national day care system.


Chinchilla’s Plan


First announced on the campaign trail in the fall of 2009, Chinchilla said the program –the Red Nacional de Cuido or national care network – is of “the greatest importance” in her administration. She said it has the potential to shield children from the effects of poverty at a young age and help provide every Costa Rican with an equal opportunity, even before he or she starts school.

“Care for children and the elderly is a familiar problem, especially for female heads of households,” Chinchilla wrote in her government plan. She proposed to double the budgets of day care centers known as CENCINAI, which unlike Hogares Comunitarios, operate out of government buildings rather than private homes. She is also planning to reach out to the private sector, hoping to convince businesses to adopt on-site day care systems for their workers.

With the rising cost of living and the increasing need for dual-income households, the demand for child care services is growing. Fifty-six percent of Costa Rican homes depend on two incomes, a percentage that will only expand, said Lorena Flores, coordinator at the the National Institute for Women (INAMU).

“Families are recognizing that two incomes can protect them against poverty and inequality,” she said. “The homes with only one provider have a higher rate of poverty.”

In situations where neither parent can care for the child, women have traditionally turned to family members for help. However, as more women join the workforce, there are less family members to turn to.

“Studies show that the existing offering for child care outside the family network is extremely limited,” said Flores. “There are two public options – the CEN-CINAI and the community homes. But it’s insufficient in terms of coverage.”

In fact, the number of community homes has decreased in recent years, from 280 at the program’s height to approximately 192 now, mainly due to budget issues.

Flores welcomes the proposal to create a national, state-funded day care service as a win-win for the country.

“This is an investment in the future in which different actors win,” she said. “The children win, the mothers win and the country wins.”

She added, “A country that doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity is losing potential.”


The Seeds for the Network


More than two months into Chinchilla’s term in office, the program is beginning to take shape. Ana María Ortiz, who was named director, expects to have an office staffed with 10 people in the coming weeks.

She’s received nearly $3 million for the remaining months of the calendar year, and plans to use the money to expand coverage by existing programs such as the CENCINAI, local health clinics and Hogares Comunitarios.

“What we are doing is combining the infrastructure already in place to make them all part of the national day care network,” Ortiz said. “The end goal is to ensure that every child has the same opportunities from the time they are born until they (start school).”

The idea is to go beyond simple child care and provide basic education, nutrition and learning materials so that children begin public school with a foundation on which to build their education.

For Umaña, providing more than entertainment to the children who fill her home every day is a challenge. Juggling three babies and monitoring the behavior of a handful of toddlers keep her too busy to recite the alphabet or practice counting.

“Education materials can also be expensive,” said the 46-year-old mother of three. “And the government does not provide any books or money to help us.”

Ortiz’s main focus at the outset of the program is on the 22 communities identified by the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) as occupying the highest slots on the nationwide poverty index, but her idea is to create a child care option for everyone by 2021.

Though it may be a heavy investment now, Ortiz is confident that plugging government money into existing options will eventually see a return. “This early stimulation will save a lot of money for when the children grow into adults because they are more likely to be successful and less prone to turn to drugs,” she said.


A Woman’s Liberation


Although Marina Reyes’ own son long ago left the nest, she smiled at the thought of creating a nationwide day care system for children. When her son was younger, she left him at an IMAS-sponsored day care center and, while the system worked for her, she knows of many women who struggle to find an affordable alternative.

“Mothers can always use the help,” she said, after the lunch-hour traffic had died down at a San José Vishnu restaurant, where she works. “Especially now that there are so many more women working.”

Thirty-seven-year-old Mahalia Symes, a receptionist at Clínica Santa Rita in San José, sees dozens of new mothers passing through the medical center’s doors every day. She said most women she knows rely on family members for help, but that she turned to a trusted neighbor with her now-13-year-old daughter. “She was excellent,” Symes said. “But I know that it can be hard to find good care.”

Umaña said the families that earn just over ¢130,000 a month ($252) – the threshold amount for receiving assistance – have the greatest struggle to meet day care expenses, because they are left to pay the ¢45,000-a month tuition on their own.

“I wish I could help them,” Umaña said. “But I don’t have the means to do so.” Ortiz hopes these families won’t fall through the gap much longer.

“Now really only the middle and upper class can afford day care,” she said. “We are trying to help the people who have the greatest need so that they can go to work and have a place to leave their children.”

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