SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — After North Port police launched an investigation into allegations of abuse at a local daycare, it's shed some light on the scarcity of professional child care services in the southern part of Sarasota County.
Along with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage from Hurricane Ian last year, it's part of the unexpected growing pains following the sudden population growth. Describing the lack of professional childcare in the southern part of the county, some experts have called the area a daycare desert.
Leaders of the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota said many families have to wait an extended period of time for daycare placements. They often find anything from 35 to 300 children ahead of them on any given waitlist.
"Some places are waiting up to a year or two for spots," Sierra Gerrin, a North Port mom, said.
Gerrin, 22, said she brings her two children to the park daily to play and interact with other children. She said her son who is around 2 years old was on a daycare waitlist for two months.
"I finally got into the school, but I had to pull them out because it was too expensive," Gerrin said.
Along with a partner who is bound for the military, that decision has forced changes at home with regard to childcare and household income.
"I am now a stay-at-home mom so I could take care of the kids and some of the other time my parents would just pitch in and watch my children for me," she said.
North Port has around 20 licensed daycares and many families have to go to other cities in Sarasota County including in neighboring Charlotte County to find placement for their child.
"There's just not enough pre-schools to handle the amount of people that are here, and then the people that have moved here," Paige Tyde, a Daycare Director, said.
Tyde operates a daycare out of the Johnson Chapel Baptist Church in Nokomis.
She said the shortage is leading to challenges for families and safety concerns for children, according to operators struggling to also hire teachers.
"Potentially loss of jobs and puts them in a position of potentially placing their child in a place or with someone that they might not have initially done it," Tyde said.
"Super population growth, not enough brick-and-mortar schools, and a teacher shortage," Ana McClendon of the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County said. "I don't want to say it's the perfect storm but it's getting to be a problem."
McClendon, who is the director of community outreach and engagement for the nonprofit, said the situation amounts to a capacity crisis.
"Your preschool is your shoulder and when you no longer have that, whether the hurricane wiped it away, any kind of emergency or it just suddenly closes for whatever reason, it is absolutely devastating," she said. "Now you couple that with the capacity crisis in Sarasota County. It's not impossible to find a spot, but it is very very difficult."
"There's a lot of children that need daycares around here," Gerrin added.
Along with grants for preschool teacher incentives, childcare advocates recommend building at least one daycare for every new development or apartment complex to help with meeting growing demands.