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Library Family 3

Shea O'Riordain, left, and Story Harris play in the children's department of the Missoula Public Library recently.

Montana needs to focus on investing money and other resources in the state’s youngest children because that’s where the biggest difference can be made, a panel of experts told a crowd at the monthly City Club Missoula luncheon on Monday.

The current systems in place are not sufficient and that demographic has been relatively neglected, which creates opportunity.

“The early years are critical for the development of a young child and brain growth,” explained Susan Harper-Whalen, the associate dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Montana.

Harper-Whalen said studies have shown that between 50 and 75 percent of all Montana children between birth and age 5 are in care settings outside the home. She also said educators for those kids “make less than almost any other person” in the community.

“Looking at our future through that lens of a financial lack of commitment to the most important years in our young children’s development, it’s imperative that we need to improve the quality of education for every child,” she said.

At the same time, the high cost of childcare is putting a burden on Montana families and single parents.

The average cost to enroll a 4-year-old in full-time care is $7,900 a year, or $660 a month, according to a 2016 study by the Montana Budget and Policy Center. The cost for infant care is even higher, at $9,000 a year. For many Montana families, child care alone can comprise half of their annual earnings, Harper-Whalen told the crowd.

Ashley Ostheimer Hilliard, a graduate student at the University of Montana who was formerly a single parent to three kids (she has since remarried), told her personal story of trying to apply for public benefits during a desparate time in her life.

“If you had told me five years ago that I would face divorce, single parenting and poverty, I would have run away,” she said. “I left a successful career as a finance manager to become a stay-at-home mom, but I assumed I would never be on public assistance. But in December of 2014, I found myself 19 weeks pregnant and a single mom to two kids.”

She said the first time she applied for public assistance, she was completely filled with shame.

“I couldn’t believe I was in that position,” she said. “I was filled with trauma, and I cried through the whole thing. People never asked me if I needed a ride home or if my kids were OK. It was just ‘fill out this paperwork’.”

She realized that applying for housing, healthcare and nutritional assistance can be a dehumanizing experience. In fact, she told the crowd she was only treated with a modicum of dignity after she broke down crying and told her whole story.

“It didn’t feel good that I had to get that personal in order to have respect in that encounter,” she said. “People deserve respect, they deserve to have their stories told and they deserve to be trusted or to explain why they need help.”

Ostheimer Hilliard said she is now advocating for public assistance programs to invite participation and give parents credit for being the expert in what they need and their children’s lives.

“As a community we can say, ‘I trust you know your needs best,’ and I choose to listen, honor and respect and give a truly equitable opportunity,” she said. “We can be the bridge and connect them with another person, not just another pamphlet. We’re not just collecting information from them.”

Brenda Solarzano, the CEO of the Headwaters Foundation in Missoula, explained why her nonprofit is choosing to spend $17 million over the next six years on its 0-5 strategic initiative to improve the lives of the state’s youngest children.

She said that there will be a bigger return on investment in efforts made to improve outcomes in that age range.

A member of the crowd wanted to know whether it was worth it to spend $5.2 million of that money to establish a program office at the University of Montana when there are kids with immediate needs right now that could use that money.

Solarzano defended the decision by saying that Headwaters is spending $2 million on the implementation of “go grants” that will be deployed to kids immediately. She also said the program office will be a “go-to resource that anybody from parents to media to nonprofit leaders to teachers” can use to get information on the 0-5 Initiative.

“That office will engage in policy, research, advocacy and technical assistance,” she explained.

Harper-Whalen concluded her remarks by saying Montana overall needs to do better when it comes to investing in children.

Less than 17 percent of all kids in the state who qualify for the state’s Best Beginnings Child Care Scholarship Program, which subsidizes childcare for low-income parents, are actually getting those services, she noted.

The rest are on waiting lists.

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