Parents with kids under 6 scramble to find after-school child care amid Ontario's new rules

Thousands of Toronto parents are scrambling to find alternative child-care options days before Ontario implements new legislation that bans children younger than six years old from participating in unlicensed before-and-after-school programs.

'I'm not 100% sure we know what we are doing after school on the first day,' a dad says

Jeremy Herring's four-year-old son, Liam, starts junior kindergarten at Perth Avenue Junior Public School next week, but the province's new rules that prevent children younger than six from participating in unlicenced before-and-after-school programs has him scrambling to find other options. (Jeremy Herring)

Jeremy Herring's son, Liam, 4, starts junior kindergarten next week, but with new Ontario rules that prevent children younger than six from taking part in unlicensed before- and after-school programs, he is among several Toronto parents scrambling to find alternatives.

"I'm not 100 per cent sure we know what we are doing after school on the first day," Herring said.

Herring enrolled his son at the Dovercourt Boys and Girls Club, but later discovered the after-school program for tots — between age four and five — is not licensed under new provincial legislation.  

Ontario cracks down on unlicensed daycares

The rules, which take effect Sept. 1st, are in response to the Child Care and Early Years Act that came into effect in August 2015 in an attempt to better regulate unlicensed daycares. The changes replace the Day Nurseries Act and stipulate that before and after-school programs that care for more than five children be licensed as child-care centres.

Eva Ravikovich, 2, died at a unlicenced daycare in Vaughan in 2013. (Facebook)

The legislation comes nearly four years after Eva Ravikovich, 2, died at an unlicensed home daycare in Vaughan. When ministry staff later investigated the Vaughan home, they found 29 children and 14 dogs, and an injunction was obtained to shut it down.

According to a 2010 federal report, the majority of children in daycare are placed in unregulated settings — usually someone's home —  if they aren't cared for by a family member. 

In Ontario, about 15 per cent of children under age 12 are cared for in licensed child-care facilities. 

Indira Naidoo-Harris, the minister responsible for early years and child care, says new child-care legislation takes a hard stance on unlicenced before-and-after-school programs. (Radio-Canada)

Indira Naidoo-Harris, the Ontario minister responsible for early years and child care, previously told CBC Toronto the legislation introduced the strong recommendations made by former ombudsman Andre Marin. He issued a report in 2014 that found unlicensed child-care providers in Ontario were operating under lax and barely-enforced rules.

The act increased penalties for infractions up to $250,000.

An enforcement team was also created to investigate complaints and proactively seek out illegal daycares operating outside of the regulations, advertising on platforms like Kijiji, Naidoo-Harris added.

'We're going to have to shift our work'

In Ontario, both licensed and unlicensed daycares are legal, and each are subject to their own regulations. But that doesn't stop parents, such as Herring, from feeling uneasy about their options.

"We're going to have to shift our work and find a private nanny," he told CBC Toronto. "We're hoping it will all work out."

Under the changes, schools and recreation programs may also provide up to three hours of care daily, without a licence, for children between ages six and 12.

The after-school program for tots, for children between the ages of four and five, is an unlicenced child-care provider. (Google Maps)

While this doesn't affect all children in the Dovercourt Boys and Girls Club after-school program, since Herring's son is under the age of six, he is not able to take part.

"They are trying to find a way to make it work if they have to become a certified child-care centre," he said.

Ministry races to licence child-care providers

Now, on the heels of the new regulations, many unlicensed child-care providers are scrambling to receive the proper certifications from the provincial government.

"We're working with the city and operators where if they're already taking care of four and five-year-olds to help them get licensed," said Lucas Malinowski, a spokesperson for Naidoo-Harris.

People are contacting providers now before they're pregnant because it's so hard to find child-care.- Heidi Higgins

Malinowski says he is optimistic the vast majority of the unlicensed before- and after-school programs that want to meet the new standards ahead of Sept. 1 will.

"We gave two years for this particular regulation to phase-in because we knew school boards and municipalities and operators would need some time to figure out a smooth transition," he noted.

But with only days left, it's uncertain if the ministry will be able to license willing before- and after-school providers in time.

Thousands affected by daycare issues

Heidi Higgins, co-founder of the Coalition of Independent Childcare Providers of Ontario, explains parents' choices for before and after-school programs are becoming increasingly limited due to the legislation.

"There are fewer and fewer options," she said.

"People are contacting providers now before they're pregnant because it's so hard to find child-care."

Heidi Higgins is the co-founder of the Coalition of Independent Childcare Providers of Ontario. (Kate Porter/CBC)

That's also due to stipulation that unlicensed providers can only take care of five children in total — including the care provider's own children — with no more than two children allowed under the age of two.

"Basically, you've eliminated 60 per cent of the spaces available to parents across the province," Higgins said.   

Herring is one of thousands of parents in Ontario affected by the change, she added.

"I just received a call from a parent an hour ago desperately searching for care because they're in exactly the same situation now."

With files from Philip Lee-Shanok