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What is a Legally Exempt Child Care provider, and why are more people pursuing it?

Heather Vincent of Carthage, New York, poses for a photo with one of the children she cares for.
Provided by Heather Vincent
Heather Vincent of Carthage, New York, poses for a photo with one of the children she cares for.

Much of New York state is considered a child care desert, which means there are many more children than spots in child care centers or home day cares.

Because there are so few spots, more families have been turning to an alternative lately. It’s called Legally Exempt Child Care.

Basically, a friend or a neighbor or a family member can be approved to a family's children, in their home, and get paid by the state to do so.

While New York has long had this Legally Exempt Child Care Provider option, a few things have changed in recent years that make it more attractive, explained Cathy Brodeur, director of the Jefferson-Lewis Child Care Project.

First, many more families are now eligible for the state's Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which pays Legally Exempt Child Care Providers. For example, a family of four that makes less than $90,000 a year now qualifies. In 2019, they had to make less than $55,000.

Second, reimbursement rates for providers have increased. That's the money that a Legally Exempt Provider recieves from the state for watching children.

Heather Vincent has experienced both of these changes firsthand.

A child care solution

In the fall of 2021, Heather Vincent was looking for part-time work in Carthage, where she lives. She had just retired from the military — she was stationed at Fort Drum — after 15 years of working for the U.S. Army and the National Guard as a mechanic.

Because Vincent and her husband have six school-aged kids together, she needed to find something flexible. Something that would let her get the kids to school in the morning and meet them in the afternoon.

"I was like, OK, my husband is working full time. I'm staying home because obviously, child care is ridiculously expensive," Vincent said. "And to have six kids in child care is pretty much an entire paycheck, if I was to go to work."

At the time, Vincent was coaching a sports team her own kids were on, and one of the other moms approached her. She was looking for someone to care for her youngest daughters during the school day, and to watch her older daughters when they got out of school.

That family, the Longs, qualified for the NY Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which meant if Vincent was willing to go through a background check and get registered as a Legally Exempt Child Care provider, she'd get paid by the state to watch the Long children.

"I was like, you know, this would be perfect," remembered Vincent. "It gives me an opportunity to make money, but then still be able to do what I need to do for my kids. I'd be able to get off work in plenty of time to bring them to all their sports ... be home for dinner."

So Vincent said yes, went through the background check, and started looking after the Long girls. Conveniently, the Long family lives right around the corner from Vincent.

Vincent has been taking care of those kids for almost two years now. She says she’s forged a really special relationship.

"I'm very close to the family, the kids," she said. "You know, instead of me being called Miss Heather, they actually call me Auntie Heather now, because we built that bond. I was blessed their mom actually asked me to be the godmother of the infant."

A financial win for both families

Vincent said that it also works well financially. Both of the Long parents are able to work full-time, she said.

"They can go to work, they can make income to be able to support their household," she said, and the state pays for the vast majority of Vincent’s salary, through CCAP.

CCAP has seen a lot of change in just the last few years, including increased reimbursement rates for providers.

When Vincent started in 2021, she was making about $1,400 a month to watch the Long kids. The new rates brought her up to $2,000 a month. That makes a big difference to their family of eight, she said.

"It was a huge increase. (With) the jump (in pay), we've been able to level a lot more things out," Vincent said.

Her six kids are all in sports, and she says the extra money has "been able to alleviate a lot of the stress of, 'OK, where's this money gonna come from this month to you know, pay for uniforms this month, or that kind of stuff."

According to the Jefferson-Lewis Child Care Project, more people, just like Vincent and the Long family, have been going through the Legally Exempt Child Care Process in the past few years.

They say many families don’t even realize that the neighbor, or mother-in-law, or friend, that watches their kids now, could be getting paid to do so by the state.