Campaigning for Day Care

Parents on the Hill Confront Limited Space, Long Wait Lists

Posted April 18, 2008 at 6:03pm

Correction Appended

With a recent baby boom on Capitol Hill, securing space in one of the dozen child care centers in the neighborhood can require as much politicking as a campaign for a closely contested seat.

“Our advice to friends is to get on a waiting list before you’re pregnant,” said Ivan Frishberg, who lives and works on Capitol Hill and has a 14-month-old daughter. “I don’t think it matters if you’re a Hill worker or a Hill resident. There is an overall lack of care.”

Stirring concern among some parents is news that Jenkins Hill Child Development Center, which cares for 14 children and has about 100 more on a waiting list, has to leave its >rented space in the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church by August. The church has rented the space to Jenkins Hill for 26 years and decided last June to terminate the lease to use the 1,200-square-foot area for its own activities. Jenkins Hill is searching for another location in the Capitol Hill area but has not found anything yet.

“We’ve reached out to everybody,” said Susan Nowak, director of Jenkins Hill. “The majority of folks on our waiting list live on Capitol Hill, and those are the people we want to serve.”

Nowak said that without Jenkins Hill, young parents would have fewer options in an already tight day care market. The day care facilities in the District’s sixth ward, which includes much of the Capitol Hill area, can collectively accommodate 3,110 children under the age of five, according to the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education. There are 435 Hill children on waiting lists for day care.

“In terms of day care, we haven’t risen to the occasion. There just isn’t enough,” said Nowak, who has worked at Jenkins Hill for 18 years.

Christine Leonard, a first-time mother with a 2-month-old son, is one of those young parents on the waiting list at a handful of day cares in the area. While she has worked on the Hill for more than 10 years and is currently on maternity leave from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leonard said she has no clout when it comes to the Senate day care, which can accommodate 68 children and has another 141 on a waiting list. The House day care can care for 64 children and currently has 100 on its waiting list. The Library of Congress’ day care, another popular choice for Hill staffers, has a waiting list of 220 children for 102 spots.

“I think there’s a misconception out there. You do get priority if you’re a government employee, but it’s almost meaningless,” a frustrated Leonard said.

She got on the waiting list for the Senate day care in September 2007, five months before delivering her son, and was told she might get a spot in 2009. She paid $60 to get placed on the Senate day care’s waiting list and $225 to get in line at four other centers on the Hill.

“You have no choice but to do it because there is no other option, but then you feel like you’re throwing away money,” Leonard said.

[IMGCAP(1)]City zoning laws require that day cares with infants have a street-level entrance, a rule that Nowak said quickly canceled out many of the options she considered for Jenkins Hill. The day care pays $2,035 per month for its space in the Presbyterian church, and the locations it has staked out charge at least double that. Nowak and the day care’s four other employees are working with two realtors to find new space to rent and have sent letters to various community groups, including Neighbors United, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and Mothers on the Hill.

In a sign of the recent growth in Hill parents, MoTH, which launched in 2001 when eight families banded together through a Yahoo list-serve, has more than 2,000 members. Liz Pelcyger, a MoTH moderator with 6-year-old twins, said the group’s members are concerned about the availability of child care.

“It’s a real source of stress trying to figure out what to do with your child, especially when you’re pregnant, which is when you really don’t need the added stress,” said Pelcyger, who has lived on the Hill for 10 years.

Pelcyger got on waiting lists while she was pregnant, applying all her political savvy to finding day care. Facing three-year waits, Pelcyger, a fundraising consultant for nonprofits, opted to work from home to be with her children.

That was an option Frishberg and his wife, both lobbyists for Environment America, could not consider. Instead, they staggered their maternity and paternity leave, and when that was up, Frishberg’s mother-in-law stayed with them for six months.

While Frishberg’s daughter eventually made it into a center, the D.C. Board of Child Care, he said he is still concerned for other parents.

“The issue with Jenkins Hill is a good example. We have to do everything we can to get more care on the Hill,” he said.

Correction: April 22, 2008

This article has been corrected to reflect that Mothers on the Hill (MoTH) was founded in 2001 with eight families banded together through a Yahoo list-serve.