Dilany Alexa Morales Cardoso napped a lot at her daycare at Washington Street. It got better over time, her mother Lucia Cardoso said, still she wondered if her toddler was learning and playing enough. She didn’t have much choice in daycare; the Early Head Start program was what she could afford.

When the family moved to Highlandtown two years ago, more options opened up to them. They received an income-based scholarship to Highlandtown Preschool, a daycare at Breath of God Lutheran Church, that made the program affordable for them.

“The community welcomes us here,” Cardoso said. “There are a lot of opportunities that doesn’t exclude us for being immigrants.”

Latino families face many barriers when it comes to getting child care. Many can find it difficult to obtain vouchers if they don’t have a Social Security number. Latinos are disproportionately likely to live in areas known as child care deserts, where there are few regulated and affordable child care options.

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In Baltimore, these pockets of lack of access to providers concentrate in the Southeast and South region of the city. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues of child care accessibility and affordability and widened economic and racial disparity gaps.

This material was published by the Center for American Progress U.S. Child Care Deserts

The role of neighborhood changes

The Latino community is the fastest growing population in Baltimore. The city’s percentage of residents who identify as Hispanic increased to about 8% from 2010 to 2020, according to a city 2020 Census results summary. Many of them are living in neighborhoods such as Highlandtown, which were majority white a decade before.

When the racial, ethnic and economic makeup of a neighborhood changes like this, public and social support institutions are often slow to catch up, said Laura Weeldreyer, the executive director of Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit focused on early childhood education.

“It’s been very clear that southeast Baltimore has been rapidly changing in terms of demographics,” Weeldreyer said. “Whether childcare is adequately grappled with that — and all of the other systems and processes that need to support thriving families have grappled with that — is unclear.”

Language can be another barrier to child care access for Latinos. Nearly 41% of the Spanish-speaking population in Baltimore have limited English proficiency. In the Highlandtown area, there’s only one registered child care provider under the Maryland Family Network that self-identified as a Spanish-speaking provider. There are also four Spanish-speaking providers in nearby Dundalk in Baltimore County, although the number may be underreported, according to the Maryland Family Network, as they don’t always update their profiles.

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Daycare centers with Spanish speakers can better communicate with Latino parents and their children and understand cultural differences, advocates said.

Cardoso said her daughter Dilany, especially when she was younger, talked in Spanish if she was feeling sick or upset. Her teachers at Highlandtown Preschool understood, Cardoso said, even if they aren’t native speakers, and called her immediately. They also provided all information and school communications in Spanish, Cardoso said, or asked Pastor Mark Parker, who works at the church and the child care center, to interpret. She felt more comfortable, more certain that her daughter was being taken care of with this attention.

Mismatched trade-offs

The closest Early Head Start and Head Start programs for Highlandtown, known citywide as the heart of the Latino community, are located in the Upper Fells Point, Butchers Hill and Bayview areas. There are at least four centers in that area, which collectively have the capacity to serve 392 children.

But these programs might not align with the needs of low-income Latino families, said Danielle Crosby, a researcher at the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families. Latino parents and guardians are more likely to work evenings and weekend hours, Crosby said, and there’s often unpredictability when it comes to their work schedule.

Child care access is more complex than whether there are slots available, Crosby said.

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“That’s when we start to realize all the different things that shape what families are looking for, the trade-offs they have to make, and then how often that is mismatched with what’s available in their community,” she added.

The application process for child care vouchers and scholarships can also be too daunting and difficult to navigate, Crosby said. The waitlist is often long, and only 13% of eligible children nationwide receive a voucher, she said. There’s a lot of stress and anxiety, too, when the form asks for a Social Security number, even if it’s optional, Crosby said, particularly for households where a family member is undocumented.

In Baltimore, Flor Giusti, a recently retired social worker who has worked with Latinos in the area for the past 30 years, stopped working on applications for child care vouchers years ago.

“We were getting nowhere,” she said.

Lucia Islas, a long-time advocate for Latino communities and president of Comité Latino, said undocumented immigrants struggle to receive state and federal assistance, even if the application indicates that Social Security number is optional. There are too many requirements, such as pay stubs, that Latino families might not meet.

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She has been a single mother for 15 years, she said. Islas was never able to get a voucher.

“If you don’t have papers ... if you don’t have a legal status, you can’t have nothing,” Islas said.

Community efforts

Community groups such as the Esperanza Center have played a role in helping Latino parents find daycare options by connecting them with resources, translating required documents and helping with school enrollment.

When Fernanda Caballero moved to Baltimore from her hometown of Chile two years ago, she had just given birth to her son. She decided to take care of him for the first year at her home in Locust Point, as she couldn’t work due to her immigration status. But a year later, when she and her husband moved to the Patterson Park area, she began to worry her son was becoming too dependent on her, she said.

Caballero and her husband began to research daycare options, looking for something that was affordable and with hours that would allow her to get back to work.

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“When I got here, I didn’t have any information,” she said, referring to child care programs.

But her husband works at Esperanza Center, an organization in Baltimore that connects recent immigrants with resources, so that made it easier for them, she said. In a turn of fate, there was a Head Start program just a couple of blocks away. It will allow Caballero, who recently got her green card, to work.

A lot of Latinos in Baltimore are recent immigrants, Giusti said, and some fled economic instability, violence and discrimination in their country of origin. The city is still not equipped with enough services that reaches them, she said.

Latino families are less than half as likely as white families to use licensed child care, according to the Center for American progress. If the family is a two-partners household, one of them — almost always the mother — will choose to stay home with the child until they turn five years old and go to kindergarten, Islas said. Single mothers usually leave the children with an unregistered provider, usually someone in the community. They don’t usually ask for certification, Islas said.

“We’re not doing that,” she said. “I mean, we are in need.”

Generally, Giusti said, these parents just do the best they can.

“A lot of these informal child care workers in the Latino community would benefit so much if they were trained,” Giusti said.

Islas manages several groups on social media, sharing resources and information for Latino communities. In groups where parents and guardians may be looking for a babysitter, Islas connects them with someone who has been vetted.

This year, she partnered with the Julie Community Center, a local organization, that provided child care training for 15 mothers of Mis Raíces, a community group for Latina and Hispanic women. The free, three-month training teaches various skills, including how to identify a good babysitter.

Baltimore City Child Care Resource Center is also doing outreach to increase the number of licensed Latino family providers, said Tracy Harris, the director of the program. BCCRC is part of The Family Tree, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent child abuse.

“Our goal is to tap into those places first, to try to get them licensed,” Harris said, referring to home-based providers who are not registered. “So they can reap all the benefits of being a licensed program, to have technical assistance.”

As part of the licensing process, the applicant goes through a series of required trainings including ones on the Americans with Disabilities Act, CPR and first aid. The program also helps the applicant get home permits for safety. Under the state education department, the Office of Child Care requires Social Security numbers to register as family care and center-based providers.

The preschool in Highlandtown

Children at Highlandtown Preschool. (Courtesy of Mark Parker.)

At the Highlandtown Preschool, Daniela couldn’t stop telling her mother about the beef jerky.

She had tried it at RoofTop, a local market in Highlandtown that her class visited and she wanted to go back. Her mother, Claudia Barrera, obliged.

The 5-year-old strolled around the shop, holding on to a shopping bag.

“My name is Daniela,” she announced to the cashier. “I was here with my school the other day.”

Before Daniela started going to Highlandtown Preschool, she didn’t speak much English, Barrera said. But at the market, Daniela walked around as if she was an adult, very sure of herself and talkative.

For Cardoso, staying home to take care of her two eldest sons was the natural choice. Cardoso says that, in her community, Hispanic women earn between $50 and $70 per day.

“We choose to take care of our children until they go to elementary school because we don’t earn enough money,” Cardoso said.

She eventually decided to put her daughters in a daycare center because it became more difficult to care for the toddlers and her boys, she said, and she felt like they needed to be with other children.

At the preschool in Highlandtown, Cardoso’s daughters learned how to sing, how to play and share, and often walked around the neighborhood with classmates to go to nearby parks, libraries and locally-owned stores such as Vargas Bakery

It wasn’t easy to change her mind on sending her children to daycare, Cardoso said. It took her eight years, about the age difference between her two sons and two daughters. She had learned that, as a mother, she had to stay by her children no matter what, Cardoso said.

Cardoso sees advantages in having a child care provider, especially now that she has gotten back to work. It’s a mentality that she wishes it could be changed within Latino communities, she said. It’s just that not everyone can afford to do so.


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Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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