Early in my pregnancy a friend told me that I was lucky to live near what was then called an Ontario Early Years Centre, a provincially funded site that offers free drop-in programs for kids zero-to-six. She added that my local centre, Toronto’s College-Montrose Children’s Place (CMCP), also had parent relief, an on-site service that would watch my child for an hour or two while I attended an appointment or ran errands. What a nice idea, I thought.
Then I had my daughter. While she wasn’t high needs, she was a baby and I was a first-time mom. But whenever I was having a difficult day, I calmed myself with the knowledge that just minutes away from my house was a safe, familiar space that could keep an eye on my kid if I needed a short break.
We first used parent relief when my daughter was nine months old and I needed to see a medical specialist who has limited hours. With no family in Toronto and with all of our friends having jobs or infants of their own, my husband would have had to have taken the day off work if not for parent relief.
A few months later I launched my freelance writing career. While I was generally able to schedule interviews for the evenings or during my daughter’s long naps, that wasn’t always possible. But again, parent relief was there to support us.
Unfortunately, other Ontario families will soon no longer be able to access this easy solution to the common but rarely discussed issue of short-term, sporadic weekday childcare. Last November, the province announced that it would stop funding parent relief at the end of 2018.
Also known as parent respite or emergency childcare, parent relief is, “For when a parent needs short-term, occasional childcare,” says Catherine Moher, manager at the Gerrard Resource Centre (GRC), a child-focused outreach program that’s offered provincially funded parent relief since 1987. While some sites, like CMCP, offered it for free, GRC charged a sliding scale. In 2017, GRC saw some 85 families use the service so that caregivers could attend medical and legal appointments, study for exams or simply get much-needed mental health breaks.
Exactly why it’s being eliminated isn’t clear.
“They never directly told us,” notes Moher. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told me, “The shift in funding for parent relief services aligns with the guidelines and goals of EarlyON Child and Family Centres, which are to strengthen relationships between adults and children and make connections for families, so they can access healthy early learning.”
The EarlyON Child and Family Centres are the province’s new initiative for kids zero-six. It was rolled out last year and has now absorbed all Ontario Early Years Centres, Parenting and Family Literacy Centres, Child Care Resource Centres and the Better Beginnings, Better Futures programs.
Moher wonders if EarlyON’s focus on offering consistent programming between centres could be part of the reason why parent relief is being eliminated since only 17 out of over 200 provincially funded sites in Toronto offered it (a handful of sites outside Toronto also made parent relief available).
If that’s the case, the province should instead be taking the opposite approach and make parent relief a standard part of any EarlyON centre. “It’s not an expensive program to operate,” says Moher who explains that the program’s only costs are an employee’s salary and benefits, “You can run the rest of it within the context of the drop-in.”
The Ministry also stated that under the Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014, parents/caregivers must remain onsite with their children, “This ensures that child safety is prioritized through a high level of safety standards,” stated the Ministry spokesperson.
Moher finds this laughable considering, “Twenty-five or 30 families watch us every day. We’re more monitored than somebody who does private home care or a licensed centre-based program.”
Part of the problem may be that EarlyON centres like GRC or CMCP aren’t licensed childcare centres. Moher says that if that’s the issue, “Then license us.” She explains that with relative ease, “We could fall under the same process that you would use to license a home daycare.” Other options include funding the program from a different ministry or changing the rules to allow it. Notes Moher, “They made the legislation, they can revoke the legislation.”
While the provincial Liberals have pledged support for more licensed childcare, “Some people just need an hour or two hours, not everyone needs 9-5 childcare,” says Moher.
As I know firsthand, finding a trusted someone for an hour or two one during a weekday is hard. Parent relief is such an easy, and relatively affordable, solution to this problem that cancelling it is truly mind-boggling. Without it, caregivers will miss appointments, job opportunities and the option for much-deserved breaks. Says Moher, “It’s putting up more barriers for families.”
The upcoming provincial election might be the key to dismantling those barriers.
“Parents need to ask what the next government or their candidate will do for them around care issues,” she says, adding that supporters can also sign this petition.
Moher says that government discussions about the future of parent relief are ongoing, “We’re not giving up.” For the sake of Ontario families, I hope that she’s successful.