When Dotty Lillo first began working with parents, children and child care providers about 30 years ago, she recalls there were over 1,000 licensed child care programs in Eau Claire County.

But now, Eau Claire is an entirely different picture when it comes to the accessibility, affordability and quality of child care. Over the past decade or so, Lillo said the number of licensed child care providers in the area has decreased by about 70 percent.

According to data assembled by a new coalition comprised of the Kids First Eau Claire Action Team and Western Dairyland’s Child Care Partnership, there are currently 92 regulated child care providers that can care for up to 4,300 children in Eau Claire County. However, according to U.S. census data, the population estimate for children under the age of 5 is over 6,000.

“We’re in a crisis — we just don’t have enough (child care providers),” Lillo said, referencing data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development showing that the state unemployment rate has remained at 3 percent for nearly a year now. “Parents are clearly working, and they need child care. At the same time, that regulated care is getting scarcer and scarcer.”

In an effort to better understand Eau Claire’s child care landscape and address the issues the community — including families and child care providers — the Kids First Eau Claire Action Team and Western Dairyland’s Child Care Partnership is launching the child care Community Readiness Assessment.

As the first portion of the assessment, the coalition asks parents, grandparents and caregivers of children ages 5 and under to take an Eau Claire County child care survey.

“There’s an interest bubbling up to advance systemic change as it relates to the child care system, with both public solutions and private solutions or a mix of the two,” said Joe Luginbill, co-chair of the Kids First Eau Claire Action Team. “But before we work towards that, we first want to fully assess where we’re at.”

Luginbill said he’s heard from many parents that they’re encouraged to get on child care waiting lists the moment they find out they’re expecting a child.

And then, if all the local providers are full and parents are unable to find a spot for their child — what more often than not occurs — they’re often forced to turn to unlicensed, unregulated care.

“While sometimes that (care) is with trustworthy people or people you know, of course being in an unregulated child care situation can set you up for a lot of challenges and liabilities,” Luginbill said. “Sometimes that may mean exposing your child to an unsafe environment or an environment that does not promote healthy development. ... High quality child care lays the groundwork for children’s success in school and beyond.”

Though the community recognizes a child care shortage and many factors that go into it, what’s difficult is finding data to support the issue. That’s why the coalition decided to start the assessment, which will look at all aspects of the dilemma.

Once the survey portion of the assessment is complete, the coalition plans to move forward to one-on-one interviews with stakeholders and community listening sessions, as well as run another survey for child care businesses and employees.

Luginbill said child care in the state of Wisconsin has suffered in the last several years due to low wages and a lack of benefits. Add that to the already-low unemployment rate, and it’s difficult for child care providers to attract workers.

“It’s kind of a double whammy of challenge here,” Luginbill said. “Looking at the fullness of this picture is really important.”

The 16-question survey, which is available online in English, Spanish and Hmong translations, will run until Jan. 31. All answers are confidential, and the survey takes between five and seven minutes to complete. The survey can be found at childcarepartnership.org.

Contact: 715-833-9206, samantha.west@ecpc.com, @SamanthaWest196 on Twitter