Daycare subsidy woes: When the system lets you down

What do you do when the system that is supposed to be helping your family only creates more problems.

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Tara-Michelle shares her struggles to find subsidized daycare for her daughter Anna.

For the last couple of years, my daughter has been in full-time daycare. From the very beginning, since she was about a year old, she went to a private daycare for two half-days—which was all I could (barely) afford. I was a single parent and needed those extra hours to do things that required two hands.

Read more: The Canadian child care crisis>

Like many parents in Toronto—and across Canada—I got caught up in the incredibly frustrating bureaucracy that is the subsidized child-care system. I was eligible for a subsidy, but wound up stuck on a waiting list. A subsidy eventually came through, but I had to be placed back on the waiting list because the only daycares in my area accepting new families were not subsidized centres. There were many quality home-care options available as well, but none were licensed and subsidized. It was a vicious cycle, and eventually my paid maternity leave turned into an unpaid extended leave from my job—which eventually turned into my giving notice.

The following year, I went back to school and managed to line up a subsidized daycare spot. My daughter attended a daycare centre in a converted house, with on-site meals cooked fresh and a playground in the backyard. I liked the families more than the staff, the space more than the communication style, and I was glad she was close to home and at a centre that was racially and culturally diverse. It was a mixed experience, but I was thankful to have it. Last spring that daycare was sold, leaving parents with only a month to find new spots. I lucked out, as I hadn’t removed Anna from the waiting lists for other centres, and got her into her current daycare—again in a subsidized spot. This time the centre was hosted in a public school, with classrooms for different age groups and space for a large number of kids. It feels more institutional, the communication is still sparse, and meals are catered and brought in by an outside agency. The positives are that the kids have access to the schoolyard and gymnasium, as well as the additional perks from being in the school—like visits from dental hygienists, and they go on lots of outings in the summer.

Read more: Why we need affordable child care—now>

Children’s Services (who runs the subsidized child-care free program in most provinces) doesn’t exactly make it easy once you’re in, either. At least, not if you don’t work a conventional job. You have to be working, or in school, during certain hours and certain days—which means programs like night school ESL, continuing education, online degree programs, evening serving shifts and such don’t qualify. Of course, this is a problem because these are the school programs and job positions that are most flexible for parents. Dealing with subsidy was a paperwork nightmare, with accusatory check-ins set up to make it seem like you are lying to them, rather than working your hardest and trying to keep your child in daycare. One low-income family I know—where the mom was in her early 20s and in full-time university and working full-time—was forced to put her entire tax return toward daycare. This was money that could have sustained her family for a while—but with her hectic schedule she filed her taxes too late and subsidy cut her off for a month and made her pay her child’s daycare fees in full.

Read more: Federally funded daycare makes economic sense>

About a month ago, I went in for my annual check-in at the subsidy office and was essentially told that I don’t make enough money to qualify for the subsidy anymore. Wrap your head around that one! I’d been a student, then a magazine intern, and then spent a few months looking for work. Many resumes and interviews later, having still not found work, I changed my status with my subsidy to “self-employed” and focused on my freelance work. Anyone who’s made the transition to freelancing knows that it’s inconsistent, at best. I was working, but I wasn’t making consistent rates and it wasn’t adding up. In Toronto, to be self-employed and receive a daycare subsidy, you have to make minimum wage plus $108 for your business to be deemed viable. The same rules apply to business owners, roofers, hairstylists and writers. If you can’t prove you’ve made this amount, they can audit you and make you pay back full daycare fees. Which means, you can work for any company for the right amount of hours but for very little money, but you’d have to be paid a fair minimum wage when you work for yourself in order to qualify.

Despite having become self-employed, the worker was angry that I hadn’t filed my taxes as self-employed for 2013. I couldn’t provide a paper she required because of this, and the whole thing became a make-work run-around that I couldn’t win. At the end of our meeting, she gave me two weeks notice and the advice to “get a job at Tim Horton’s and focus on a career later.”

Have you had a struggle with childcare subsidy? Were you able to resolve it?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a preschooler. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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