It was March 27, 2021, and an at-home day care in Grand Rapids was ready for a pool day. The day care’s owner took seven children — five of whom were just 2 and 3 years old — to a nearby Holiday Inn Express. She bought a room to use the hotel’s splash pad and two indoor pools, and charged parents $25 per child.
None of the children had life jackets or arm floaties. The caregiver, Melanie Williams, was the only adult overseeing the seven children. At the time, Michigan law required one adult for every six children at licensed at-home day cares. That rule has since been relaxed by state lawmakers.
At 6:38 p.m., one of the smaller children — identified only as “Child P” in state investigators’ reports — ran away from the kiddie pools and climbed into the larger adult pool.
Four minutes later, the girl’s head was underwater, her lips blue, her eyes open, lying flat on her back, witnesses said.
She wasn’t breathing and had no pulse.
Luckily, an off-duty paramedic and an off-duty nurse on vacation with their own children were nearby, and pulled the child out of the water, surveillance footage shows.
Another adult ushered the other children away, later telling investigators that he didn’t want them to watch a child die.
Child P survived, but her brush with drowning underscores the stakes as Michigan’s child care industry deteriorates. Overwhelmed by demand, Michigan’s child care industry is in full-blown crisis, according to “Disappearing Day Care,” a 10-month-long investigation by MuckRock and a consortium of Michigan newsrooms. Reporters collected years of investigative reports by Michigan’s child care licensing bureau, testimonials from hundreds of parents and providers, and analyzed new state child care data provided as part of pandemic federal relief programs.
The data and documents show the problem is even worse than policy makers thought.
Nearly double the child care deserts
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based nonprofit, created a list of 11 so-called "child care deserts.” These are regions where three children compete for every available slot at an in-home or group center.
But those deserts were calculated using the capacity of licensed child care facilities located in a particular county. The practice overstates the number of spots available and thus hides the true picture of child care availability in Michigan. Many of these licensed child care slots remain empty for a variety of reasons.
Through state Freedom of Information Act requests and a first-of-its-kind data analysis of child care records, we found the number of day care deserts in Michigan is nearly double previous estimates .
A total of 20 counties have so few child care options that they qualify as deserts, the data shows. Another 23 Michigan counties, including Detroit’s Wayne and Macomb counties, are rounding errors away from qualifying as deserts as well.
In Macomb County, a county-wide waiting list of more than 2,300 children attends parents in search of care, state data shows.
Data also shows that nearly half of providers are under-enrolled. 48 percent of providers reported enrollments below license capacity to the state, for a difference of more than 4,000 slots.
In Wayne County, 11 ZIP codes in Detroit are weathering dire capacity shortages.
One neighborhood, which includes Hamtramck and borders Highland Park, had as many as nine children per every available child care slot.
The neighborhood, which is one of the poorest in the state, had a ratio more than three times the criteria to qualify as a desert.
Outside of Detroit proper, wealthier Wayne County suburbs had less need: while the ratio of children to slots for the city was 2.8,
the ratio for Wayne County overall was 2.5.
After seeing the new data, Michigan’s Early Childhood Investment Corp. a public organization that contracts with the state to help run the child care system, said that it didn’t know the original child care desert figure was flawed, and that the original numbers were calculated using the best available data at that time.
Based on the new, larger numbers, “it’s clear that families do not have access to child care to meet their needs,” the ECIC said in a statement.
Statewide capacity estimates of 373,000 day care “slots” for Michigan’s children are an illusion. The real figure for 0 to 5-year-olds is closer to 264,000, a gap of more than 100,000 slots that reflects staffing shortages, high costs and temporary closures caused by COVID-19, as well as the exclusion of more than 70,000 children over the age of 5 who are eligible for kindergarten programs. Michigan has more than 559,000 children under the age of 5.
About 23% of centers that received state grants don’t serve newborns up to 3-year-olds, a critical age range for care. Out of a total of 140,000 slots at grant recipient facilities, roughly 11,500 served infants and another 30,000 served toddlers.
During the pandemic, closures heavily outpaced openings. Since February 2020, Michigan has 637 fewer child care providers, a 7% drop, according to state data. Family providers closed at several times the rate of high capacity centers in urban areas, a shift that exacerbates the day care drought for rural parents. In 2018, a pre-covid year, 1,000 group and family homes closed, while just 486 centers opened to replace them.
A cumulative statewide waiting list includes at least 54,057 children. On a population-adjusted basis, a waiting list of more than 3,200 was the longest, by far, in Grand Traverse County, a rural, northwest Michigan county which saw more than a third of its child care facilities close over the past three years. In June, Oakland, Kent and Washtenaw counties all had waitlists longer than 5,000.
State aid missed 2,363 providers, a reflection of disinterest in government help, even as the child care business model becomes increasingly untenable. Providers cited concerns around government intrusion into their curriculum and mistrust that the grants would really be tax-free.
Advocates, policymakers and experts said that bad data has long dogged efforts to improve the state’s child care industry and that the findings from “Disappearing Day Care” only underscores the lingering problems.
State Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Oakland County), who sits on the Michigan House Families, Children and Seniors Committee, said our findings show “just how urgent” the need for child care reforms have become.
Lisa Brewer-Walraven, director of the Michigan Department of Education’s Childcare Division, said she didn’t dispute that more counties than previously known qualify as deserts. “What we’re focused on is the solutions,” Brewer-Walraven said.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a first-term Democrat running for re-election this year, has made expanding child care one of her administration’s key initiatives, noting her “first-hand experience” in trying to find affordable child care and pledging $100 million in state money to open 1,000 more child care facilities by 2024. In a point-by-point response to our findings, her office asserted that “under Gov. Whitmer’s leadership, the state has worked with providers to keep them open and serving kids” and provided testimonials from nearly 900 providers who received grant funding.
But her office also noted the daunting issues facing Michigan’s child care industry — and the net loss of more than 600 providers during the pandemic.
“All families deserve to have child care that meets their needs — regardless of where they live, how much money they make, their race, ethnicity or immigration status,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “In too many Michigan communities, families cannot find the child care they need.”
The real number
Less than half of Michigan’s 8,000 active child care facilities give real-time numbers to the state. For these providers, who work with Michigan’s Great Start to Quality program, officials can see each facilities’ enrollment numbers.
For more than 4,000 other facilities, however, the Michigan Department of Education knows only their licensed maximum. That number, known as “license capacity,” can be significantly different from the actual number of children enrolled at a given time.
Child care finance expert Louise Stoney described license capacity as a useless number for planning purposes. Stoney’s group, Opportunities Exchange, consults with a number of state education departments on the economics of early education reform.
“The real issue is staffed capacity,” Stoney said. “How many classrooms are you staffed to run? That’s the real number.”
But many Michigan providers said they haven’t been able to fully staff in months. Some run as many as 80 children under capacity, even as parents line up at the door for coveted spots.
The most in-demand openings are those for the youngest children, ranging from newborns to 3 years old.
They also require the most attention, which means more staff.
At River’s Edge Learning Center in Bay City, the shortage of employees has meant that owner Danaea Trombley has limited how many children she can enroll. “If we don’t get three or four more staff, we can’t open up that toddler room,” Trombley said.
In December 2021, Trombley was running under capacity by 30 children.
The most in-demand openings are those for the youngest children, ranging from newborns to 3 years old. They also require the most attention, which means more staff.
From an economic perspective, providers say they are crushed between the effort to keep staff and run a profitable business. Emily Myers, owner of Ferndale Montessori in Oakland County, said that after paying utilities, wages and benefits, she puts aside only 2 to 3 percent of the school’s profits. That sum often gets reinvested, however.
“This is for when the furnace goes out, repairs, incidentals,” Myers said. “At this point, I have not added to a nest egg or rainy day fund for this business, until the grant money.”
One of her biggest expenses — a health insurance option for her employees — often threatens to put her business in the red.
But offering health insurance allows her to keep employees, who are often tempted away from private child care into the relative comfort of Michigan’s public school system or other higher-paying industries.
Child care workers in Michigan start anywhere between $11 and $15 an hour, and rarely receive benefits through their employer.
“Our people can go literally anywhere and make more than they can in child care,” said Linda Smith, executive director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childcare Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “When it costs more than the consumer can afford to pay, then the business model is failing — hence the issues with staffing. It’s the same problem that we’ve had for decades, only magnified.”
To pay more, providers have to charge more. But parents already pay as much as 35% of their household income for child care, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In response to a public callout from MuckRock, one parent in Mount Pleasant, Monica Rosen, said that paying for her daughter’s preschool pushed her family to the brink of poverty.
“We'd like to have another child, but can't realistically imagine a scenario where we can afford one,” Rosen said.
The pandemic pulled thousands of Michigan mothers out of the workforce entirely. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by RegionTrack — an Oklahoma-based consulting group — found a 6 percentage point drop of women with childcare-aged children in Michigan out of the workforce in 2020. The drop, from 71 to 65 percent, had recovered somewhat to 68 percent in 2021. For single mothers the drop was worse: 13 percent left the workforce, with just 4 percent returning in 2021.
The Grand Rapids day care owner who took seven children to the Holiday Inn told investigators that Child P had run away to follow some friends into the bigger swirl pool unnoticed. She stood just 3 ⅓ feet tall and wore a polka dot Minnie Mouse bathing suit.
Surveillance footage from the pool showed the entire incident lasted 7 minutes and there were at least 21 children in the pool area.
It all happened, Williams told deputies, “in a blink of an eye.”
An off-duty nurse gave the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for more than a minute and the off-duty paramedic then performed chest compressions for an additional 80 seconds, the footage shows. After three rounds of chest compressions, the little girl “came to,” they said, and vomited water before being taken to a nearby hospital.
A month later, Williams’s day care license was revoked by the state and, in settlement documents, she did not deny the allegations.
In hours of bodycam footage obtained for this project, Williams was clearly shaken and crying shortly after the incident,
and told deputies that she is normally “so good with my kids.”
A charge of third-degree child abuse was forwarded from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to the county prosecutor’s office, records show, but the office declined to charge Williams, concluding that it appeared to be an accident, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said. After the little girl was taken to the hospital, bodycam footage shows one deputy privately confiding to another:
“It’s tough, man. They can get away from you quick.”
Child P’s guardian also didn’t want to press charges against Williams and, in fact,
returned the girl to the same day care before it ultimately closed. Williams hung up the phone when reached for comment for this story.
Meanwhile, investigative reports by state regulators raise concerning flags about children’s safety as workers leave the industry.
In March 2021, a Novi child care worker accidentally let a child fall off a changing table, and didn't alert others until later in the day because she was "too busy" watching other infants and "did not have time" to report it, at a facility that repeatedly has staffing turnover. The caregiver was ultimately fired.
And in September 2021, a facility in Canton was found to have just two staff members looking after 28 toddlers.
Two days later, inspectors found that, at one point, the facility had allowed just one staff member to care for 35 toddlers.
The facility still maintains an active license.
The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), which regulates and investigates complaints about child care facilities, said it prioritizes the safety of children. But the agency has found more than 9,000 child care staff vacancies across the state and is now letting some facilities apply for rule exemptions to hire younger staff who are finishing required coursework and are awaiting final certifications.
A survey the agency sent out this spring found that staffing turnover affected a majority of facilities and ranked as the No. 1 factor affecting the number of available child care openings.
Complaint data shared by LARA shows that annual complaints dipped in 2020 and 2021, with numbers from this year on track to return to pre-pandemic levels. In that same period, the agency has seen a more than 200% spike in investigations of “Professional Development Requirements,” a category that includes health and safety training for new staff members. LARA spokesperson Suzanne Thelen suggested the spike could be linked to new professional requirements added by the agency in December 2019.
“There is a balancing act between the need for care and child care being a silent driver of the economy, but our role is to protect the health, safety and welfare of those kids in care,” said Emily Laidlaw, the director of Michigan’s Childcare Licensing Bureau.
Asked about staffing and safety violations, both MDE and LARA said their focus was on creating a “one-stop-shop” for providers to resolve questions and come back into compliance with regulators. With a hotline to providers, the agencies hope they can pre-empt more violations.
Legislators know that parents and providers are pleading for help, but have reached little consensus about a solution.
In past legislative sessions, Republican lawmakers advanced and passed bills intended to clear a cobweb of licensing rules that they say are suffocating small providers. Some bills were contentious, like one that expands the number of children in-home providers can look after. The bill was proposed and passed by state Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican who represents rural Grand Traverse County, which has the longest waiting list for child care of any county in the state.
“I talked to providers. They told me, ‘If I could have just one more kid I could probably make enough money to stay in business,” O’Malley said.
Some Democratic legislators are hesitant to relax rules, and instead have pushed for solutions that funnel more state funding — potentially from a $7 billion budget surplus — toward buttressing or reforming the child care business model.
Whitmer has also championed the issue, directing a $1.4 billion pot of federal money toward one-time grants for providers. Some providers received as much as $630,000. The Whitmer administration also expanded eligibility for state-subsidized child care by 100,000 families.
The grants helped providers clear debts, give bonuses to workers and offer scholarships to lower-income parents, according to state data and hundreds of provider testimonials. But experts say the one-time money failed to substantively fix child care.
“It wasn’t long-term money. So programs really didn’t spend it to raise wages permanently, because they were facing this cliff,” said Smith, with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childcare Initiative. “What they have done is given some type of one-time bonuses. But very few really raised the wages of the workforce, which now is complicating everything because wages have gone up so much elsewhere.”
Brewer-Walraven said she backed the new bills, specifically citing the ratio change “as good for providers.”
In a statement, Whitmer’s spokesman, Bobby Leddy, said that the governor “is using every tool in her toolbox” to address “decades of disinvestment in child care.”
The Whitmer administration has also introduced a program called TriShare, which splits child care tuition among the employer, the state and parents. Whitmer has also set a goal to open 1,000 new child care facilities, backed with a $100 million commitment. Of that total, $11.4 million is being directed toward recruiting staff.
However, with the exception of a $2.5 million investment in TriShare, all of the child care relief money has come from federal grants. And a $77 billion state budget passed in June allots just $34 million new dollars towards early childhood education. The money is destined for Michigan’s Great Start to Readiness Program, a state-funded preschool program for at-risk kids.
Otherwise, the budget identifies leftover dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for use in further child care relief.
The Children’s Funding Project, a policy group that researches revenue options for child care systems, has tracked how different states used the one-time funds, as well as if they backed the one-time relief with legislation.
Gaines, CEO of the Children’s Funding Project, said she was surprised that the Whitmer administration – which in 2019 pitched universal pre-K – wasn’t investing state funds in child care reform. “There’s not a lot in there outside the initial [ARPA] investment,” Gaines said.
Matt Gillard, CEO of Michigan’s Children, a policy organization focused on childrens’ issues, said he’s still waiting to see the state put “skin in the game,” meaning more state money.
“The reality, as we all know it, hasn’t changed,” Gillard said in regard to the flight of workers from the field of child care. “They’re underpaid and leaving for other industries. The state has to get serious about the financial side of this.”
Mohar Chatterjee of Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Mitchell Kotler of MuckRock, Koby Levin of Chalkbeat Detroit and Ana Rivas also contributed to this story.