British Columbia

Special needs kids may lose taxpayer-funded daycare

An agency that started a non-profit daycare in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside says it can no longer afford to keep enough staff to care for the troubled, disadvantaged children it was set up to help. The Phil Bouvier Centre attributes its problems to $4,000-a-month rent charged by a charitable foundation that owns the building.

Downtown Eastside child-care centre says it can't afford the rent

Stacey Bonenfant says she will have to quit her job if she can't keep her sons Dragon and Legend in the daycare. ((CBC) )

An agency that operates a non-profit daycare in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside says it can no longer afford to keep enough staff to care for the troubled, disadvantaged children it was set up to help.

The Phil Bouvier Family Centre attributes its problems to $4,000-a-month rent — charged by a charitable foundation that owns the building — and the recent loss of some short-term provincial funding.

"It's a perfect storm, said Sabine Tanasiuk, child care co-ordinator for the Phil Bouvier Centre. "At the end of August, three staff will leave — and the children will just have their minimal needs met."

The Phil Bouvier Family Centre opened in June 2008 on Princess Avenue in Strathcona. It was partly funded with almost $2 million of provincial and city taxpayer money and has spaces for 49 children. According to Tanasiuk, 200 more children are currently on the waiting list.

She said it was intended to fill a desperate need for quality child care in B.C.'s poorest neighborhood — where most parents can't afford to pay full fees and children often have special needs, which require extra staff.

Tanasiuk said the majority of children who attend the center were born to parents with drug or alcohol problems, and many live in with poverty and violence. She said they are the children other daycares can't or won't accept.

"Some of the brothers and sisters — who are older than these children — are on the streets," said Tanasiuk . "They are prostituting. They are in the gangs. We didn't have enough supports for them."

Parents like former addict Stacey Bonenfant have now been told their children may not be able to remain at the daycare if the financial shortfall continues. Her two preschool sons have special needs that require extra staff the centre said it can no longer afford.

"My five-year-old cannot sit for half an hour for story time," said Bonenfant. "[My children] cannot follow directions. They don't function in a group well. And they are being penalized for it."

Parents may have to quit jobs

"I've just built myself up. I'm now at a full-time job and I would have to cut my job and go on welfare if I lose my daycare," she said. "If you don't sink the money in now, you will be paying in 15 years, because these kids will be the addicts and the drug dealers and criminals."

Child Care Co-ordinator Sabine Tanasiuk says if rent isn't cut, staff for special needs kids will be let go. ((CBC) )

The Phil Bouvier Family Centre was a project taken on by the Central City Foundation (CCF), which owns the building that houses the daycare and other services for families. It was spearheaded by Phil Bouvier, the foundation's former executive director, who died in 2006.

The CCF paid $1.69 million to purchase and renovate the building; the city and the province contributed $1.77 million.

The foundation then leased the building to the Vancouver Native Health Society (VNHS) for $48,000 per year rent — to run a "hub" of services for families that would include child care. VNHS in turn arranged for the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre to run the daycare.

Correspondence shows that the native health society is billing Ray-Cam $65,000 a year — to cover the daycare's rent, maintenance and utilities. No one from VHNS returned phone calls from CBC News.

"We are not in Kerrisdale or Shaughnessy," said Bonenfant . "This is the lowest income area and our children are the highest risk — the most vulnerable in Vancouver — so why would you penalize them by charging them rent?"

Tanasiuk said when Phil Bouvier was the executive director of CCF, there was no indication the daycare would pay any rent.

 "Phil (Bouvier) would roll over in his grave. He really would," said Tanasiuk. "He had full intention to make sure that all the kids down here had access to early learning so they would be kindergarten-ready — and graduate from high school."

Foundation says rent is justified

"Central City Foundation is very proud of the investment we made in the Phil Bouvier Centre and continue to make in this center," said foundation CEO Jennifer Johnstone.

Central City Foundation CEO Jennifer Johnstone says rent for the daycare is already heavily subsidized. ((CBC) )

Johnstone stressed $48,000 is a modest annual return on donors' investment in the building, which allows the foundation to fund other worthy projects. She also said the Phil Bouvier Family Centre is getting a heavily subsidized rent, because the building could be rented for three times that much.

"That kind of rent — let's be clear — is one less than a third of market," Johnstone said. "Each project has a slightly different model, but it has to be sustainable. So in order for us to continue to do this, we have to be able to continue to regenerate capital to be able to put into new community buildings."

Sharon Gregson, a trustee with the Vancouver Board of Education and vocal child-care advocate, pointed out many non-profit daycares in schools or community centres pay much less for rent, some as little as $1 per year. 

Lack of provincial funding also blamed

However, Gregson said the centre's money problems should also be blamed on a lack of provincial money for child care, which affects many daycares.

Phil Bouvier Family Centre was partially financed with taxpayer money. ((CBC))

"The situation at the Phil Bouvier Centre is a tragically clear example of the larger systemic child care crisis across British Columbia," said Gregson.

"Due to the government's apparent determination not to provide adequate, stable operating funds, many, if not all, child-care programs are struggling to meet their daily expenses and are particularly challenged in their ability to provide appropriate services for the children who need extra support."

Mary Polak, B.C.'s minister responsible for Child Care, wrote to the Phil Bouvier Family Centre operators in July, stating the province already contributed $1 million to CCF for the building — and recent funding for extra staff was only temporary.

"The province provided $60,000 in short-term bridge funding to allow the centre to develop a budget plan and complete special needs assessments for children at the centre", Polak wrote. "The bridge funding was an interim solution."

Tanasiuk said staff are now "cherry-picking" through the wait list, to see if the centre can offer spaces to children whose parents can pay more — or who don't cost as much to look after.

"We're trying to find easier, typical children," said Tanasiuk. "It's very difficult, because 80 per cent of the children on the wait list live in this community. It feels really rotten. It breaks my heart. I have cried several times over this center. And my staff are having a really hard time."

Johnstone said the VNHS — its official tenant — has not asked for a reduction in rent, but if it does that will be considered.

"I'm happy to take that [request] to the board," said Johnstone. "I am willing to continue to support Vancouver Native Health — with whatever we can do to help them make this building work."