LOWER TOWNSHIP — Not at all phased by the cleanup that awaited her, Debra Clark gently directed her charges in their play while using one hand as a wall to keep Legos from spilling off a table.

On this weekday morning, Clark was responsible for the care of three toddlers, all of varying developmental skills. The walls of the blue room where the children played were adorned with cutouts of Disney characters, and sheer curtains allowed sunlight to filter in. In the corner was a plastic play kitchen, where many children through the years have honed their domestic skills.

“I love kids. I am one of 10,” Clark said from her kitchen table as an assistant stepped in to care for the children.

In 1987, Clark was a young mom looking for a way to earn an income while staying at home with her own children. Since then, the mother of four has been providing state-registered child care in her North Cape May home.

Clark fears it may no longer be worth it financially to continue if regulations don’t change.

During the past decade, the number of state registered in-home care providers has dropped dramatically as many have forgone the voluntary registration process and others have left the business completely. Renee’ Serad, staff representative for Childcare Workers Union Local 2779, represents registered in-home child care providers in 11 counties in New Jersey. Ten years ago, there were about 4,000 registered providers in her region. Now, there are about 600, she said.

Serad said in-home child care providers are leaving because they feel targeted by the costly federal and state regulations, as well as the tactics of local resource and referral agencies.

“They have put such stress on family child care providers that we’re seeing a record decline in registration,” she said.

In Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, Rutgers Southern Regional Childcare Resource and Referral Agency is in charge of overseeing the registered centers and in-home care providers, as well as referring families.

Rutgers Southern Regional Director Marianna Finamore said the number of providers is likely dropping because of the increased health and safety regulations instituted as a result of the reauthorization of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant Act in 2014.

“Those have put a stress on providers, and many have opted not to continue to be family child care providers,” she said. “Many years ago, health and safety was not in the forefront of what was a requirement, and now it is, so it’s made it a little more difficult for providers.”

Finamore said resource and referral agencies, which are contracted through the state, don’t make the rules. She said the referral is solely based on the requirements of a family and has nothing to do with personal preference.

“Every (Childcare Resource and Referral Agency) has a system that once you enter that family’s specific needs, it produces a list of child care providers in the area,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress released a study that showed large swaths of South Jersey were considered “child care deserts,” defined as any U.S. Census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or too few options. Serad said that makes in-home providers all the more essential, as registered in-home care providers can fill the gaps and accept child care subsidies from the state and federal government.

In-home care facilities are often a cheaper option than center-based care, according to statistics from ChildCare Aware of America, which studies and advocates for affordable child care options for families.

To stop the exodus of registered family child care providers, Serad said the union would like to see the state allow for an increase in the number of children allowed per caregiver — currently at five — allowing caregivers to increase their pay and provide more options for families. The providers say they also want the flexibility to be able to have a grace period for overlap or emergencies.

“That’s a big burden. I’ve had parents calling me crying their eyes out and saying, ‘Well, can you just take them?’” said Clark, the union representative for Cape May County. “They’re stressed.”

She can’t, or she would be in violation and risk losing registered status.

Serad said the union will continue to push for changes to the regulations and is seeking reprieve from the referral agencies for her registered providers.

Clark said when she started in the business, she felt like she was part of a family. Recently, she said, she has felt threatened by the staff from Rutgers. She said a Rutgers employee once told her, “I know where you live.”

“We feel like they’re trying to find something wrong with us,” Clark said.

Finamore said that is not the case and suggested Clark contact her or the site director to discuss the incident.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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