A Year of COVID: Informal Child Care Providers

Among the unsung heroes of COVID-19 response efforts are informal child care providers or family, friends, and neighbors (FFN) who have continued to support working families during the pandemic. Since COVID-19’s outbreak, 40 percent of children previously in formal child care nationwide are now in care of FFN providers. FFN care is unlicensed child care in a provider’s home, generally for a small group of children or one child for the short- or long-term and can be paid or unpaid. These informal providers play a vital role in our child care systems and economy by helping working families with young children access child care options that otherwise would not be available. For families of low-wage workers with schedules outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workweek or in rural areas with no licensed child care providers, FFN care is sometimes the only option.

Related: Colorado Workers in Low-Wage Jobs

Family, Friends, & Neighbors (FFN) Networks Operate in Invisible Systems

Millions of families prefer and rely on FFN care because it is often the most accessible, comfortable, affordable, and provides individualized attention to children. In 2016, 5.2 million children from birth to age 6 were in care of a non-parental relative  and 2.8 million were regularly in non-relative home-based care. Of these 5.2 million children, 31 percent were Black, 25 percent were Hispanic, 23 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 23 percent were white (non-Hispanic), and 79 percent were in care of a grandparent. Of the FFN providers caring for these children:

  • 73 percent of unlicensed home-based providers were unpaid, and among the paid providers the average price was $3.80 per hour
  • 82 percent of unpaid providers cared for children in nonstandard child care hours, e.g., evenings, overnight, and/or weekends

Between 2010 and 2018, Colorado lost nearly a quarter of the state’s licensed facilities and the loss of child care for working families has only worsened in COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, approximately 256,000 children aged from birth to age six had working parents who depended on some form of child care, but the state only had enough licensed capacity to care for 45 percent of these children. FFN providers helped to fill gaps in licensed child care shortages and continue to provide care for families whose formal child care arrangements have been disrupted by COVID-19.

While the demand for FFN care is widely known, Colorado has limited information on the needs and quality of care provided in informal child care settings. Like licensed child care providers, FFN providers are facing challenges from the pandemic and need access to financial and teaching support to continue caring for children. However, because of the lack of data and understanding of FFN care, FFN providers have commonly been undervalued and excluded from most child care reform and COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Quality Improvement Initiatives of Early Care & Learning Exclude Informal Child Care Providers

For decades, access to high-quality early care education has been a priority for Colorado to ensure all children enter kindergarten-ready. As a result, the state has focused on efforts to enhance quality and strengthen our formal early care and learning workforce. Examples of statewide efforts include a redesign of our quality rating and improvement program, Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) reform, and a priority to enhance skills and development of the early childhood workforce. While these efforts have made advances in our child care systems, our state has missed opportunities to include informal child care providers in quality initiatives. Moreover, these efforts reflect explicit and implicit assumptions about formal child care settings representing high-quality care and informal care providers lacking quality.

Differences Between Formal & Informal Child Care Settings

In Colorado, formal child care facilities such as family child care homes (FCCH), centers, or programs like before and after care in school districts, must obtain a license to operate child care services. Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood (OEC) within the Department of Human Services regulates child care operations in licensed facilities to ensure quality, health, and safety standards are met for all children in care. Informal child care settings such as FFN care and other short-term occasional care are most often exempt from licensing requirements and are permitted to care for a small group of children.

Creating pathways for FFN providers to obtain a child care license has been a priority for Colorado but several barriers to obtain licensure exist at local and state levels for providers. For example, in addition to a state-issued child care license, some municipalities require providers to obtain a business license and meet local regulations, zoning, and fire and building codes requirements. In some instances, this added regulatory layer required additional safety equipment costly to providers. For others, conflicting local and state regulations reduced the number of children allowed in care.

Pathways to Licensure Should Not Be Universal Approach to FFN Care

Colorado needs to find more efficient ways to include FFN care in efforts to support our child care system without requiring rigorous licensing standards. FFN care includes a broad category of informal care providers and little is known about their desire to obtain a child care license. Many FFN providers do not identify themselves as operating a child care service and often view as their role supporting families and their communities. Regardless of formal or informal child care settings, FFN providers are essential to strengthening our child care systems and COVID-19 recovery.

The pandemic has unveiled the importance of the invisible system FFN providers operate in and the need to better understand and support informal child care. Post COVID-19 working families should have several quality child care options, including FFN care, to choose which option(s) best fits their needs. Colorado should include support for FFN care in state and federal COVID-19 relief efforts such as: