LEWISTON — Maine lost 623 child care providers between 2008 and 2018, most of them family-style providers.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the state had 2,438 providers in 2008. That dropped to 1,815 in 2018, a 25 percent decrease.

But while the number of licensed providers dropped overall, capacity to care for children stayed about the same, largely because bigger facilities handled the need, according to DHHS.

In 2008, providers could care for 48,421 children statewide. In 2018, they could care for 47,667, a difference of 1.5 percent (754 children.) At the same time, data shows, Maine’s population of children dropped by thousands, likely reducing the need for day care.

Also, public pre-kindergarten, which became increasingly popular during that time, absorbed some of the children who otherwise would have gone to day care.

Child care has been a contentious topic in Maine, especially in recent years as some people call for stricter regulations for providers in the wake of child abuse allegations. Others call for loosening regulations to encourage home-based or family-style day care.

The issue was recently raised again by the conservative nonprofit Maine Heritage Policy Center, which in December sent a fundraising email congratulating its then-policy analyst Jacob Posik on his appointment to the Maine Children’s Growth Council, a group established by state statute in 2008 to work on a plan for early childhood services.

Posik, of Turner, has since become Maine Heritage Policy Center’s communications director.

In the fundraising email, which used the subject line “Leading the charge,” the center emphasized the fact that Maine had lost 600 child care facilities since 2008, adding that, “This is an issue at the foundation of Maine’s economic troubles.”

“How can Maine attract working parents if the state keeps squeezing them out of affordable child care options?” the email said.

It added: “From reducing the fees associated with a child care license, to eliminating educational requirements that do not translate to better service, we are excited for this opportunity to partner with you and make a difference for the future of Maine.”

The email did not mention that capacity had stayed about the same despite fewer providers.

On Monday, Posik said he believed the problem isn’t that Maine has fewer slots for child care, it’s that those slots are likely more expensive because they’re in large centers rather than homes.

“The cost of care in a center far exceeds the cost of a family provider,” he said.

A statewide survey released in June 2018 shows that larger day care centers are often more expensive than home-based day care. Full-time infant care, for example, could cost $215 a week at a center, but $150 a week with a family.

Posik believes regulations, including minimum staffing requirements, background checks and the public posting of inspection results, could be driving some family day care providers out of business.

“Just because capacity transitions to child care centers does not mean there is not a cost problem that needs to be addressed — or potentially a regulation problem, if regulations are in fact what’s driving family providers out of the market,” he said.

DHHS officials disagree that regulations are to blame.

“That decline can likely be attributed to a number of factors, including workforce challenges, population and the demand for services,” said department spokeswoman Emily Spencer. “DHHS is committed to ensuring that the state has adequate child care capacity and plans to review the current challenges facing providers and identify solutions to address those barriers.”

The statewide survey released last June supports DHHS. It found that the vast majority of providers aren’t shutting their doors because of onerous regulations.

While 2 percent said they closed because of challenges in meeting regulatory requirements, 3 percent cited lack of demand, 3 percent cited financial challenges, 7 percent cited personal reasons and 65 percent blamed “other.” Twenty percent gave no answer.

Posik said “other” reasons could be related to regulations.

“My best bet would be that providers don’t realize much of what they’re displeased with is in effect regulatory,” he said.

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