Pennsylvania day-care centers that serve the children of low-income parents say they will soon be forced to turn away youngsters, a suggestion that the social-services safety net, frayed by the state budget impasse, is beginning to tear.
Two Philadelphia day-care providers formally notified state officials last week that they would have to stop caring for children whose parents are helped by the state program Child Care Works. Payments from that and similar programs are due to stop this month as the budget talks drag on.
Interviews with the owners of other Philadelphia centers and with the parents who count on them suggest that layoffs and closings are imminent. The impact on poorer families could be devastating.
"I'm really panicking right now," said Jessica DiStefano, who works at one Philadelphia day-care center and who relies on another to care for her year-old daughter.
Meanwhile, the budget stalemate is pushing other types of social-service providers toward crisis and closure.
In Philadelphia, Episcopal Community Services, whose offerings include homeless shelters and senior-safety programs, sent out an urgent e-mail plea this week for donations, saying it would exhaust its available cash on Aug. 24.
In Gettysburg, South Central Community Action Programs announced it would cease operations on Aug. 22, ending family services that include a day-care center and homeless shelter.
The agency said it planned to resume functioning when it receives $1.2 million in overdue government funding.
Today, the owners, teachers, and children at as many as 35 Philadelphia day-care centers plan to stage simultaneous sidewalk protests beginning at 11 a.m. The "Take it to the Streets Campaign" is aimed at pushing lawmakers to end the budget impasse, now in its second month.
"This is a dire situation," said Stacey Witalec, spokesperson for the state Department of Public Welfare. "For a low-income parent, losing child care could mean the difference between having a job and losing it tomorrow."
The Child Care Works program helps provide care to 130,000 children across the state. A recent survey of 85 city day-care centers shows the harsh effect interrupting its service could have: Twenty-five percent of the centers have laid off staff, a total of 73 workers. They expect to lay off 270 more if there's no state budget by the end of August. If the stalemate continues through September, 40 percent of the centers expect to close.
Witalec said yesterday that two Philadelphia day-care centers, Personal Touch and A Child's First Step, had notified the state that they would soon have to turn away children.
"I've been in business for 11 years and the children, that's where I want to be, to give service to these children," said Sherea Davis, owner of A Child's First Step. "But I can't do that without the funding."
In an interview yesterday, Davis said she had sent a letter to parents, alerting them to this new reality. She said she had cut programs in music and gym. The nutrition program is next.
"The staff that I have, they're no longer getting paid," she said. "I had to cut costs all the way around."
Through various programs, the state provides centers with what is essentially a co-payment based on parents' level of need. For many centers, that means between 50 percent and 90 percent of a child's day-care cost is covered by the state.
"I'm living off the co-pays and my personal savings," said Davis, who figures her center, in the 5900 block of Ogontz Avenue, can hold on for another month. "After that, I'm going to have to turn people away. I'd hate to do that."
Efforts to reach executives at Personal Touch, in the 4800 block of North Broad Street, were unsuccessful yesterday.
Last week, Gov. Rendell signed a stopgap budget that provided money for essential services and to pay state workers but little else. By vetoing most of the budget - spending for libraries, state parks, and social-service programs - Rendell hoped to force legislative leaders to approve a plan that raised revenue by increasing taxes.
The state has operated without a budget since July 1.
Yesterday, House Minority Leader Sam Smith blamed Rendell for letting child-care services go unfunded. The Jefferson County Republican accused the governor of using children as leverage to force legislators to raise taxes.
"I just find it offensive," he said.
Rendell said Smith and other GOP leaders were the ones stalling the budget process. He has withdrawn his bid to increase the state income tax by 16 percent, leaving it up to Republicans to find alternative ways to fund important programs.
"They are the ones holding kids hostage," Rendell said.
Whoever is at fault, many nonprofit groups that care for society's most vulnerable - the young, old, sick and needy - find themselves pushed to the brink of closing. And that means people who need help won't get it.
Agencies are cutting workers' pay, laying off staff, and slashing programs while digging into cash reserves and using up lines of credit.
"What will happen if we have to shut down?" asked Robin Riggins, who runs two day-care centers called Reaching for the Stars in Northeast Philadelphia. "The legislature, it's talk, talk, talk. But this is our livelihood. We're still watching the kids, but we're not guaranteed payment."
Almost all the parents at her centers depend on state aid, she said. Now they ask, " 'What will happen if my day-care center closes? I need that for work.' "
Jessica DiStefano, a single parent, finds herself in just such a situation.
She said received a letter from the Munchkinland daycare center telling her that without state support, it would soon close. And with no care for her year-old daughter, Celestina Vasquez, she'll have to give up her job at Reaching for the Stars, hurting a two-person family already on welfare.
"I'm a parent that has no family, and nobody to watch my child," said DiStefano, of Holmesburg. "It's really affecting the innocent, the children."