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Byron and Emily Robinson play uno with their daughters, Keating, 5, and Becca, 3, in their living room on a Friday afternoon. Keating, left, and Becca will spend the week at daycare except on Fridays. In 2016, Robinson's family spent $16,000 on child care before changing day cares. (Gavin McIntyre/The State/TNS)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Emily Davison started looking for a new job when her second child was on the way. Teaching piano lessons at Fort Jackson, she knew her pay wouldn’t cover day care for two children.

So the Columbia mom quit teaching at the fort, and took a job working at a day care center that offered a 50 percent tuition discount to employees. Even with the discount and a full-time job, Davison, who is married, spent $8,940 of the $16,000 she earned in 2016 on child care.

“I was lucky if I made $50 in a week after child care expenses (and retirement) came out,” she said.

Davison is one of many South Carolina parents familiar with the hustle of working mostly to cover her family’s child care costs.

It’s a pricey expense across the state. In a State Media Co. survey, more than 35 South Carolina parents reported paying $100 to more than $200 a week for one child in a day care center, approved to keep 13 or more children.

Those costs — almost $13,000 a year for an infant at one highly rated Columbia day care — are comparable to paying tuition at some South Carolina public colleges. Undergraduate tuition at the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus, for example, is about $6,100 a semester, or $12,200 to attend full time.

However, while financial aid and scholarships help make college affordable, South Carolina families are on their own paying for child care, unless their income is low enough to qualify for a child care voucher — less than 150 percent the federal poverty level, or $37,050 for a family of four.

Instead, families can claim a federal tax credit specifically for child and dependent care expenses. Families with adjusted gross incomes of $43,000 or more can qualify for tax credits of up to $600 for one child’s day care expenses and up to $1,200 for expenses for two or more children.

Paying for child care is not the only challenge parents face.

Parents must endure lotteries to secure spots in highly rated day cares. And waiting lists stretch for a year or more at some spots. Those pricey fees to reserve spots don’t guarantee anything.

“It really is like the Hunger Games,” said Connelly-Anne Ragley, whose day care bill for her two children is more than her mortgage on her downtown Columbia home. “Can you survive? Can you find a spot?”

Finding child care can be a grueling task, fraught with high costs, few guarantees and endless decisions to make about what place would be the right fit. Parents find centers with different operating hours, fee schedules, rules about whether parents must pack snacks and lunches, and on and on.

“It’s a process, and it’s not something people really tell you about,” said Amanda Loveday, who works in public relations in Columbia.

Loveday was shocked when she started hunting for day care for her first child. She and her husband spent more than $1,000 to get on waiting lists, she said.

“The woman at every single center I went to knew I was pregnant before my best friend did. And I wanted safe, regulated child care, so I went and filled out forms (when I was) six to eight weeks pregnant and begged them not to tell anybody.”

Ragley said one center asked her for “proof of a positive pregnancy test.” She said the question came about because women had gotten on its waiting list without being pregnant. When they came up on the list, there was no baby.

“I feel like it was just very abrasive,” she said, adding she kindly told the center, no thank you.

Tuition for highly rated child care centers in the Midlands can easily reach or exceed $10,000 annually, in a review of day care centers’ fee schedules.

For example, monthly tuition for an infant is about $850 a month at Shandon Presbyterian’s child development center. At Trinity Learning Center, in Trinity Episcopal in downtown Columbia, infant tuition is $975 a month. At Eastminster Day School, infant tuition for year-round day care will run families who aren’t members of the church $1,055 a month.

That cost is out of reach for many families, said Loveday, whose children go to Trinity’s center. “I can’t imagine. I pay $1,735 a month in daycare. … The fact that a good, reasonable place for someone to take their children so they can be members of a working society costs that (much)? It’s hard.”

FINDING AND AFFORDING QUALITY CARE

Caroline Belknap was about five months pregnant with her first son when she started looking for child care.

“Everywhere had a waiting list,” said the Spartanburg registered nurse, now a mom of four. “It was just nerve racking.”

Her son ultimately got a spot at the day care in the hospital where she works, but to bridge the gap until the spot opened up, her husband had to take extra time off and her mother had to help out.

For the couple’s second child, she “knew better.” Before her first prenatal appointment, Belknap secured a spot on the waiting list at hospital’s day care. At one point, the couple had all four of their children in day care.

Tuition for infants cost more than $300 every two weeks, but the day care did provide diapers and wipes, she said. All told, their day care expenses cost them about $20,000 a year for two years, more than their mortgage, she said.

Part of the high cost of child care stems from what it costs to operate a child care center.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who owns and operates private day care centers, says regulations dictate every detail: from the number of sinks and bathrooms a facility must have to the square footage available for children inside and outside to the quality of food served and size of food portions to the thickness of the material underneath the playground equipment.

“It’s all part of licensing, and it’s all costly,” she said.

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Centers that participate in the state’s voluntary ABC quality rating system, which rates center on an A-B-C grading scale based on the quality of health and education options the centers offer, have additional requirements to meet and are inspected more often than centers that do not participate in the rating system. Of the state’s roughly 2,500 child care facilities, roughly a third — or 842 — participate. Most of them are centers with 13 or more children.

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Home day cares provide more affordable options for parents, but they operate in the privacy of parent’s homes, making it easier for parents to be left in the dark about the quality of care their children are getting, some parents say.

In Greenville, costs are similar to the Midlands for high-quality child care centers, said Kathryn Martin, who started a nonprofit to help parents afford tuition at highly regulated day care centers after her 3-month-old daughter, Kellie Rynn Martin, died in a home day care in 2014.

The nonprofit, Kellie Rynn Academy, pays about 75 percent of tuition at day care centers, which total between $800 and $1,200 a month, Martin said.

Day care for parents of two or more children, the costs of high-quality care can soar out of reach, Martin said.

“I never knew that I needed to start looking at 14 weeks pregnant where we were going to go,” she said, noting that the day care centers she liked for Kellie Rynn had 18 month to two-year-long waiting lists.

The cost for those centers also made them consider other options.

“My husband was a second grade teacher at a private school, so he was getting paid next to nothing, and I was working retail. We just didn’t have the money.”

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