In five months, the downtown Baltimore day care attended by Celine Plachez's youngest son is slated to close, yet she's not looking for a backup. She can't stomach it.
She searched before he was born, calling about a dozen places, some of which said they wouldn't have an opening in the foreseeable future. Others were so expensive, they cost more than tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park. And a handful were just plain unacceptable in terms of quality.
So she's devoting her energy to finding a way to keep open the Children's Choice Learning Center, housed in the Social Security Administration building on North Greene Street.
"Call me crazy — I refuse to look. I want to fight," said Plachez, a scientist who lives in Federal Hill. "We can make it happen. It's not impossible, it's not unrealistic."
Plachez's response to the center's planned closure highlights a frustrating reality: At a time when the city is trying to attract and retain families — and more women work than ever before — there's a lack of high-quality, affordable, regulated child care in Baltimore.
The shortage is particularly pronounced for children younger than 2, like Plachez's son, who require a higher, 3-1 ratio of children to staff under state law, making their care cost-prohibitive for many facilities.
For some who live or work in the city, the situation has significant consequences.
Rachel Winer Sticklin of Canton is postponing having a second child until the first is out of day care because her family can't afford to pay for two at once.
Judy O'Brien of Otterbein started looking for a spot two years before her newborn needs it, knowing she faced long waiting lists at many places.
And Jana Gauvey of Federal Hill brings her kids to Baltimore County, where she works in marketing, for their care.
"There weren't that many options close to our home," Gauvey said.
Others, particularly those with low incomes, are putting their kids in informal, unregulated city settings — often in the homes of neighbors operating babysitting businesses — in the hope that the financial savings won't equate to inadequate care.
Not enough spaces
Roughly 13,300 Baltimore children younger than 2 have mothers who work, and many of them need some kind of child care, from relatives, hired sitters or centers, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of state data. Licensed facilities can accommodate at most 20 percent of them.
The surrounding counties face a similar issue, though only Anne Arundel County's case is as severe. In Howard County, for example, licensed facilities can handle up to 35 percent of the children under 2 who might need care; in Baltimore County up to 27 percent can be accommodated.
The quality of care is also thought to be less variable in the counties. A greater percentage of children enter kindergarten fully prepared in the counties than in Baltimore.
"In most cities, there is always a shortage of infant and toddler care, mainly because it's expensive to do it right," and Baltimore is no exception, said David W. Andrews, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. "The ratios of adults to children [here] just don't make it a very profitable scenario unless you're able to charge upward of 17, 18, 19 thousand per kid."
There are also a "number of consequences associated with" doing it wrong, Andrews said.
Studies increasingly show that the early years are crucial to a person's development. Ninety percent of brain growth happens before age 5, and the first three years of life are particularly important. Young children and infants are primed for learning, educators said, and their environment has a lasting impact.
Studies show that while parents have a strong influence on young children, day care effects can linger. Children in the highest-quality programs — where kids feel comfortable, stimulated and cared for by a stable staff — do the best years later in terms of social and academic development, and even health and economic prospects. Those who receive poor care are more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system, act out or drop out of school.