When Staff Sgt. John Williams went to sign up the child of a deployed friend, for day care in Heidelberg, Germany, his heart dropped when he learned that 2-year-old Elijah was at the end of a long waiting list.

As the deployment of troops to Iraq continues, finding child care on some U.S. bases in Europe is proving difficult as day-care facilities work with limited staffs.

“There was a lot of anxiety, especially if the slots weren’t opening,” Williams said. “But I stayed in there and prayed.”

Child and Youth Service professionals in U.S. Army Europe say staffing, which is based on a pool of military spouses, is always a challenge. But deployments have raised the ante, as spouses either return to the States or choose not to work while their soldier is downrange.

Child-care centers must maintain a certain staff-to-child ratio and consider mission-essential programs first. As a result, some centers have closed hourly day care and part-time preschool programs in order to support full-time care needed by working parents or people in Williams’ situation.

Williams promised his friend, Staff Sgt. Tharus Bradley, that he’d care for Elijah during Bradley’s deployment to Iraq with the Bamberg-based 294th Quartermaster Battalion. Now Elijah’s mother, a 1st Infantry Division soldier, must leave Oct. 27 for training in Maryland.

Williams, who works for USAREUR commander Gen. B.B. Bell, agreed to care for Elijah. But when he learned that one woman was on the waiting list since April, he considered backing out of his commitment.

“I said to myself, ‘I can’t keep him now,’” Williams said. “But I stayed in there and prayed, and those slots opened up.”

Difficult summer

Carol Owens oversees CYS and other recreation programs for the 26th Area Support Group, a command that encompasses military communities in Mannheim, Heidelberg, Darmstadt and Kaiserslautern. She said CYS staffs are critically low because of the Army regulated staff-to-child ratio.

“Everybody does the best they can, but there’s a point where you start to cut back,” Owens said.

Several care managers said this summer was more difficult than past years.

“I’ve never seen it this bad — even during the drawdown,” said Patricia Hollis, 293rd Base Support Battalion CYS director.

In July, Mannheim began to feel the affects of the deployment, Hollis said.

“The first program we had to cut was hourly care. It’s a heart- wrenching decision.” Hollis said. “You want to provide that care, but you must focus on mission-essential services — and that’s full day care.”

At Heidelberg’s child development center at Patrick Henry Village, the staff has been cut in half over the past six months, said trainer Aubrey McCaster. Like other communities, Heidelberg prepares for a staff reduction in June, a normal rotation time for troops in Europe. But now the center has only 26 workers when normal operation requires 52 to 56 on staff, he said.

“We’ve seen a lot of turnover,” McCaster said. “It definitely has to do with deployment issues.”

That has forced the Heidelberg center, one of two in the community, to reduce its hourly day care program and part-day preschool.

Getting some help

When staff numbers fall, CYS programs step up recruitment efforts.

But taking on new employees is not an easy process, CYS officials said. First, extensive background checks are conducted, which can take weeks or months. Then prospective hires must pass a health assessment and find their way through the government application process.

Finally, they undergo a week of training. Standard classes cover topics such as: health and nutrition, child development, detecting abuse, and safety. Trainers also cover CPR and first aid.

In July, Mannheim had 29 potential hires, Hollis said, but only five “are coming on board.” Hourly day care in Mannheim, which had also closed in March, resumed Sept. 22, but on a half-day schedule, Hollis said.

Meanwhile, struggling programs often rely on the Family Child Care program, where military spouses offer day care in their base housing. The spouses are trained in a way similar to day-care staff and enter into an agreement with the child’s parents for payment.

“They are professionals, not baby sitters,” said Mannheim FCC director Marie Miles.

Currently, FCC providers care for 169 youngsters in Mannheim, slightly more than those in the community’s full-time day care center. Now, nine more spouses have begun work and 20 more are applying, Miles said.

And apparently the FCC route may be the saving grace for those in need of child care, several CYS officials said.

In Heidelberg, Williams was certainly glad to lean that young Elijah will be cared for by an FCC provider until a full-time day care slot opens later this month, he said.

“There’s times you thank God that stuff like this happens,” Williams said.

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