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Petaluma sex abuse case puts spotlight on unlicensed daycares

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Ortencia Gonzalez had modest dreams for her life in the U.S.

When she left Jalisco, Mexico, in 1981 on a promise from her father that she could work at a Petaluma dairy, all she wanted was to work in an office. Ten years later, Gonzalez, 56, made that dream a reality as a rental assistance staffer at Petaluma People Services Center.

She remembers those days fondly, but she also had five children to take care of, and sending them to a brick-and-mortar daycare was out of the question for a working-class family.

In the Latino community, it takes a village to raise a child, said Gonzalez, now a caregiver and optometry assistant. It’s common for stay-at-home moms to look after other children in the neighborhood as a means to earn a little money while helping others, she said.

However, recent allegations of sexual abuse at an unlicensed Petaluma daycare have put into focus the prevalence of local childcare services being offered without the proper accreditation. Often, parents agree to cash terms with a nearby caregiver based simply on word-of-mouth references and trust.

The family at the center of the abuse case involving 45-year-old Pedro Erasmo Diaz Ibanez was supposedly serving undocumented residents for over 10 years, Petaluma Police said, further underscoring the challenges facing low-income parents that can’t afford a licensed facility.

“I had friends, people from my hometown that were here. They were my babysitters,” said Gonzalez. “They were wonderful to my kids. Back then, I didn’t know anything about people having to have licenses to take care of kids. Second, it wasn’t expensive. At that time, I was paying $20 for five kids. It was nothing.”

According to a 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute, childcare costs in California are among the highest in the country, deemed the 11th-most expensive state overall and second on the West Coast to only Washington.

The average cost of infant care is almost $12,000 annually, which is about 33 percent more per year than in-state tuition for a 4-year public college, the report said. Sending a 4-year-old to daycare averages nearly $700 each month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established an affordability standard that determined childcare should only account for 10 percent of a family’s income. But under that rule, less than a third of California families would be able to afford it.

“For somebody who’s working in a job where they get paid minimum wage, there’s no way,” Gonzalez said. “Or, they’d have to have two or three jobs. It’s very, very expensive.”

The Community Care Licensing Division of the Department of Social Services regulates California childcare through its regional offices across the state, and has approved more than 70,000 permits, said department spokesman Michael Weston.

When the DSS receives a report of an unlicensed facility, the agency contacts the primary caregiver and gives them two options, he said. They can either apply for a license, which takes approximately 90 days to complete, or cease operations altogether.

Depending on the size of the daycare, the DSS collects an application fee and a similar annual fee ranging from $73 to nearly $2,500 for large-scale centers. The certification process also includes background checks, inspections and various training.

“Most people just don’t know that licensing is required,” Weston said.

Many families turn to federal subsidies or apply for financial assistance from the desired childcare provider to help pay for some or all of the tuition.

Certain early childhood programs are exempt from immigration restrictions, and federal guidelines allow undocumented parents to apply for aid as long as the child is a U.S. citizen. Awards like the Child Care and Development Block Grant, for example, don’t require social security numbers either.

Still, undocumented families are often reluctant to pursue public benefits, and if a child doesn’t qualify, unlicensed caregivers become the only option when a trusted relative is not available, Gonzalez said.

She sees childcare as a disregarded public health issue, and believes elected officials should be responsible for helping improve the structure that surrounds daycare services to help avoid nightmare scenarios like what is alleged to have occurred at the Ibanez residence.

“It’s very important that the leaders of our community provide some help,” Gonzalez said. “These families should have the right to have a good program for our kids.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)