Pa. suburban parents are in a child-care bind. What it says about society is not pretty | Maria Panaritis

Chris Hatton (left) and his son Charlie, 8, stand with Sam Soldan and her husband, Jonathan Fingerut, and sons Xander, 5, and James, 8. Both families have been told they did not win after-school-care slots for their elementary school children this fall.

It shouldn’t be this hard keeping your kids alive while you and your spouse try to work.

Not in 2018, when two-income households are the necessary norm in even modestly middle-class communities. Not when you consider how today’s parents are steeped in stagnant wages and less economic security than their own parents were a generation ago, when Mom could stay home with the kids without sacrificing the mortgage along the way.

And yet, there they were last month, biologist Samantha Soldan and advertising guy Christoper Hatton, mildly panicking on a Haverford Township train platform as the Center City-bound friends compared notes about news that had just been dumped into their respective families’ laps.

Their 8-year-old sons, third-grade buddies at Chatham Park Elementary School, would no longer be welcome to spend afternoons there in the fall. The parents had paid thousands of dollars up till now to have their boys stay before or after school. But money would not fix this problem. Next fall, every after-hours child-care slot at nearly all of Haverford Township’s elementary schools had filled up just a few hours after registration began.

About 100 kids in the 11-and-under age range would be kicked to the curb at 3:30 p.m.

Parents would have to figure this out themselves. A daunting task in a densely built, older Delaware County suburb where families are flocking in big numbers to the scarcity that is a relatively affordable home in a strong public school district. Society, in other words, was happily throwing yet another burden onto the shoulders of a generation already buckling under the pressures of a merciless economy.


Camera icon EMILY COHEN / For The Inquirer
Chris Hatton and his son Charlie, 8, sit in front of Chatham Park Elementary, where Charlie attends school. Chris and his wife, who both work, have been told that their son didn’t win a slot for after-school care at Chatham.

Hatton, Soldan, and their other anguished parent friends are constantly juggling jobs, kids, and all the frenetic craziness of parenting with no social safety net. But they swarmed this problem immediately with advocacy. They emailed the agency that runs the child-care program, the principal at the school where it is held, and top officials with the school district itself. Can someone please help? they asked.

What they got instead was a rude wake-up call: Being middle class in 21st-century America is like being the B student in high school.

You’re invisible unless you start making trouble.

My hope with this column is that policymakers will start giving a damn about these obedient lambs. And not just the ones who run the Haverford school board and township, but anyone who dares to campaign in any election this year as a champion of the middle class.

“The infrastructure is not there to support families with two incomes,” said Soldan, 44, whose family of four occupies a 1,400-square-foot home because that is what it can afford.

These are not entitled slacker-elites, if I may co-opt some of the nasty language the hard right uses to describe people who go to school and try to improve their lives near big cities. Between third grader James and 5-year-old Xander, Soldan and her husband shell out about $25,000 a year just for child care so that Mom and Dad can work to support the family.

“Everybody’s just at a loss,” Hatton, 42, told me after finding my email address on the web a few weeks back to rant. “I just feel like we’re at a dead end.”

Desperation had driven him to find me. And thank God he did.

You don’t get heard sometimes if you don’t scream.

Camera icon EMILY COHEN / For The Inquirer
The two-income families stuck without after-care for elementary school children this coming fall in Haverford Township do not live in lavish homes. This is a Delaware County suburb with old, densely built houses that don’t sell for anywhere close to the cost of entry into exclusive Tredyffrin, Radnor, or Lower Merion Townships.

What I must make absolutely clear here, for starters, is that the school district has done nothing legally wrong.

Districts are under no obligation whatsoever to provide child care, on or off their premises. Those that do, however, have done so in response to emerging needs. Most who do make this amenity available to parents hire contractors to use school grounds. Those contractors run the programs themselves.

Such is the case with Family Support Services in Haverford. And FSS director Jennifer Dorn says demand has surged in just the last three years.

“The need for it has expanded exponentially,” Dorn told me. “I just think that there’s more families where both parents are working.”

FSS can’t expand without more space. The district says it has no more space to give.

And when parents emailed both, all they got in return were emailed versions of hand-wringing and lukewarm condolences.

Neil Evans, a four-decade public schools veteran who recently joined Haverford as the head of pupil services, told me the crush of demand in Haverford is unlike anything he’s observed at other suburban districts, including Upper Dublin and Hatboro-Horsham.

“I’ve never seen it to this level,” he said.

Why, I kept asking, isn’t this a policy priority?

The school district sees fit to help provide the amenity — but washes its hands of the matter once it gets sticky. Parents say there are few other options in town, and the few that do exist appear equally difficult to get into due to extraordinary demand. It’s just not a sign of a healthy society to put these kinds of pressures entirely on parents or to expect solutions from a free market that clearly isn’t adjusting to meet demand.

Even School Board President Larry Feinberg was initially a tough sell when I asked what the district could do to help.

“I know it’s a problem,” Feinberg told me. “I don’t have a solution.”

The world has changed, I told him, since your college-age kids were in school. You and your wife watched them after school because you worked from home, I added. Most parents just don’t have that wiggle room.

Camera icon EMILY COHEN / For The Inquirer
Charlie Hatton, 8, (left) plays with brothers James Fingerut, 8, (center) and Xander Fingerut, 5, on the field in front of their elementary school, Chatham Park on March 10, 2018.

Feinberg came around.

Maybe the township could find a building, he said. Maybe the district, the township, the school board, and the agency could brainstorm a way out of this tough situation.

“As a policymaker,” Feinberg said, “if the demand is there and parents want to come and raise the issue at the township level and at the district level, perhaps we can jointly look at the problem.”

Perhaps, in other words, a little noise from the middle class is now in order.