Groups aim to remove barriers for home-based child care centers

January 8, 2024, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Written by Margaret O’Hara

ALBUQUERQUE — From the front, Maria Idania Enriquez’s home looks like other houses in her residential neighborhood, not far from the Albuquerque International Sunport.

The back of the house tells a different story.

A playground — with a set of swings, two slides and a climbing wall — rises from the backyard’s wood chips and artificial turf.

A side door enters into a renovated garage, the inside painted in bright pastels and stuffed with child-size furniture and toys.

On one wall hangs certificates accrediting Enriquez as a child care provider with New Mexico’s Early Childhood Education and Care Department and her business registration with Bernalillo County.

Even though she works out of her home, caring for children is Enriquez’s business.

Enriquez administers one of hundreds of home-based child care centers across New Mexico, programs that make up a crucial piece of what the Early Childhood Education and Care Department calls a “mixed delivery system.” A complex network of child care providers — including community-run child care centers, school district-based prekindergarten classrooms, federally funded Head Start programs and home-based programs like Enriquez’s — allows parents to select the early childhood care environment that works best for them.

However, many home-based child care providers remain inhibited by language barriers and unfamiliarity with the resources available to them.

That’s why Santa Fe-based advocacy organization Growing Up New Mexico, alongside the Partnership for Community Action and the Women’s Economic Self-Sufficiency Team, created a business incubator to offer home-based child care providers the resources they need to be more successful. Enriquez was a recent participant.

The program, which began in 2022 and will start training its third cohort of providers this month, has helped home-based child care programs across the state increase their revenue, the number of children they care for and the quality of care they provide, said Rebecca Baran-Rees, Growing Up New Mexico’s vice president of policy and community development.

The group aims to ensure caregivers are “getting access to the professional development they need, the safety training that they need, all of the resources to be a strong and stable business,” she said.

A schedule posted on the wall in Enriquez’s home shows just how labor intensive her job is.

Work begins at 6:30 a.m., when Enriquez and her daughter, Ana Dominguez — a teacher in the program — start preparations for a new day. It ends around 6:30 p.m. with cleanup after the children have gone home.

And after their child care duties end for the day, Enriquez and Dominguez become students themselves. Both are pursuing degrees in early childhood education at Central New Mexico Community College.

In addition to long hours, home-based child care providers suffer from a condition nearly universal among early childhood educators: “We don’t get paid what we should for caring for kids,” Enriquez said in an interview in Spanish.

She estimated she earned around $3 per hour before enrolling in state programs to increase her income.

The tight margins and long hours are a common experience among home-based child care providers, Baran-Rees said. Even though many families want the personal touch that comes with a home-based program — one that mimics the care and attention of an auntie or grandma — most can’t afford to pay prices proportionate to the services rendered.

The early childhood field is also tightly regulated for health and safety reasons. Specific rules from the state and federal governments dictate how providers can operate, down to the types of food that can be served during snack time.

Ensuring compliance with all of those rules can be difficult when they’re not written in the providers’ preferred language.

Many home-based providers, including Enriquez’s, operate their programs in Spanish, while the guidelines governing their businesses are in English.

“One of the biggest — the biggest — obstacles, which many of us didn’t dare to confront, is the language,” Enriquez said.

“A lot of people stop trying because of the language — because they don’t know that, in many cases, there are translation options, better communication options, and that they’re not going to discriminate based on our language,” she added.

New Mexico has made extraordinary gains in subsidizing child care, Baran-Rees said. It offers child care assistance to families making up to four times the federal poverty level and greatly increased its reimbursements in 2023 for providers in the New Mexico PreK program.

Even though application materials are often available in Spanish, the language barrier can limit home-based providers’ access to these state programs, keeping their earnings low.

Growing Up New Mexico’s business incubator is designed to relieve solve some of the challenges home-based child care centers regularly experience, Baran-Rees said.

“It’s a funky sector because … the caregiver is wearing five different hats: They’re like the CEO and they’re also the janitor and they’re also the teacher and they’re also the HR person and everything in between,” Baran-Rees said.

The incubator is intended to ensure providers can juggle all of those hats appropriately with a six-month crash course in the business of home-based child care.

In addition to professional development sessions on child growth and development, Baran-Rees said, the program focuses on helping participants learn to manage business finances, pay taxes and access the state’s licensure and quality rating systems, New Mexico child care subsidies and a federal food program that reimburses child care providers for meals and snacks served to children in their care.

So far, more than 130 home-based providers have graduated from the program — and they said it helped them increase their earnings, knowledge of the field and business acumen.

Sara Ramos said participating in the business incubator took her day care in Hatch “from one to 100.”

Before the program, Ramos said, she watched two to three children each day and got paid $10 to $15 per child, per day.

Now, she has 12 children in her care each day. Her income has increased dramatically, from about $200 per week to about $2,000 per week.

“I’m earning 100% more than what I earned before,” Ramos said in an interview in Spanish. “My family was very poor — we were experiencing a very difficult situation — and now we’re doing very well economically.”

Enriquez experienced something similar. The program, she said, helped her become a better leader and prioritize time to share information and learn from other home-based providers as well as how to keep track of her business’ expenses and keep them separate from personal expenses — even though the business is housed in her home. She increased pay and benefits to ensure her employee doesn’t leave her for another child care setting.

Now, Enriquez said, she closely tracks every cent of income and spending for the business. She even secured a loan to build the playground in her backyard.

And she makes good use of the playground.

During one recent morning — between an arts-and-crafts session of decorating snowmen and snack time — Enriquez zipped up her students’ jackets and led them outside to play.

As the children romped through the backyard, Enriquez played, too. She ran around the yard in a spirited game of tag. She threw and caught a basketball. She went where she was needed, constantly ready to catch the children at the end of the slide or push them higher on the swings.

“I’m working for my family, for my friends, for my children,” Enriquez said. “And I do it with love.”