Some Utah families are not getting help paying for child care, which advocates say violates federal rules

Utah kids are being hurt by state eligibility rules that improperly consider their parents’ immigration status, family advocates argue.

Some immigrant parents in Utah are being denied financial help from the state with their child care bills, a rejection that advocates contend goes against federal guidelines.

Although that legal point is not yet resolved, advocates also argue the state should choose to assist these families now — as many immigrant parents are working in jobs considered essential during the coronavirus pandemic and millions of dollars of federal relief money are pouring into Utah.

And they’re hoping that change will happen with a new administration under Gov. Spencer Cox, who has prioritized early learning and education, as well as equality and opportunity for all Utahns.

”It really is critical that the state change their practice ASAP,” said Emmie Gardner, CEO of Holy Cross Ministries, a nonprofit that assists underserved communities. Many of these families, she said, “so desperately need this child care subsidy.”

The funding at issue comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. According to a 2016 federal rule, officials who distribute subsidies from the fund are only supposed to consider “the citizenship and immigration status of the child,” who is “the primary beneficiary” of the assistance.

As recently as this year, though, parents have been denied subsidies for Utah children who are American citizens, in cases where the parent was not, according to advocates who said they have read rejection letters shared by families.

The state does not plan any change to its eligibility rules, said Becky Wickstrom, a spokesperson for the Department of Workforce Services and Office of Child Care.

Those rules take into account whether a parent is — legally — working the required number of hours, she explained in an email. “We believe we are in compliance with the federal rule.”

COVID-19 should make change a priority, advocates say

Advocates say they have been working since 2015 on extending the subsidies to help “mixed status” Utah families — which have members who are citizens, and members who may be undocumented or have another immigration status. The list includes Centro de la Familia, Early Childhood Alliance, Voices for Utah Children, YWCA Utah and Holy Cross Ministries, among others.

Their representatives have contacted and met with leadership of Utah’s Office of Child Care several times, and they have sent a letter to the federal agency that oversees the office. But there have been no changes, they said.

“We can’t seem to get any urgency about it,” said Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children.

And there has not been a lot of clarity on how to help families that are being denied subsidies, said Gabriella Archuleta, a public policy analyst at YWCA Utah.

“So, where this leaves us is we have all of these families who are largely essential workers,” in manufacturing, hotels, schools, hospitals and food services during the pandemic, who are unable to afford child care on their own, Archuleta said.

And ultimately, Utah’s kids are the ones being hurt, according to Lizeette Zurita, of Holy Cross Ministries, as they aren’t able to benefit from the high-quality child care that’s important to their early development and education.

The federal funding is provided to states, territories and tribes to, among other things, “provide financial assistance to low-income families to access child care so they can work or attend a job training or educational program.”

An agency “may not condition eligibility based upon the citizenship or immigration status of the child’s parent,” the 2016 federal rule states.

Esthefany Aguilar, family community partnership and disabilities manager at the nonprofit Centro de la Familia, said denial letters as recently as this year have included this explanation: “... a member of your household does not meet the necessary work authorization requirements or does not meet the eligibility requirements for alien status in order to receive child care assistance.”

To Aguilar, Gardner and the other advocates, that shows the agency is improperly factoring in a parent’s immigration status.

What Utah’s rules say

When asked whether the state has denied subsidies for the care of Utah children who are U.S. citizens, based on the mixed immigration status of their parents, Wickstrom responded in an email: “Child care subsidies are only approved if parents are authorized to work in the U.S.”

According to Wickstrom, these are Utah’s eligibility requirements to receive a subsidy:

• Households must include a child under the age of 13 and/or a special needs child under the age of 18. Households must be income-eligible, which is at or below 85% of the state median income for the household size.

• A child care subsidy payment can be approved for employment only or for employment and training.

• A single parent must be working an average of at least 15 hours per week. For two-parent households: one parent must work an average of 15 hours per week and the second parent must work an average of 30 hours per week.

The department’s policy “defines work as employment in the labor market, on-the-job training or being self-employed. Wages must be obtained legally,” Wickstrom wrote.

“States are given authority and flexibility to develop procedures and policies related to eligibility,” she said. “We will continue to follow federal guidance as we receive it.”

The department and the Office of Child Care are aware of the advocates’ concerns, she said, and “we are willing to work with and listen to advocates to address their concerns and identify appropriate resources for all Utah families.”

“We are following the policy as it has been in place for several years and we are actively meeting with and listening to the advocate community,” she said.

Going to the feds

Kristen Schulz, a coordinator with the Early Childhood Alliance, and the other advocates acknowledge that the state has the ability to determine what procedures and processes it uses for the subsidy program.

But they argue that any requirements that “evaluate the work authorization or alien status of the parents” violate the federal stance to base eligibility only on the citizenship or immigration status of a child.

In November, Schulz sent a letter with their concerns to the regional manager that oversees Utah for the federal Administration for Children and Families.

“I am concerned that Utah’s current application process may de facto consider the parents’ immigration and legal status,” Schulz wrote. She asked for guidance on the best way for the child care subsidy program to verify a person is working, without violating the rule against considering the parents’ immigration or legal status.

Schulz received a response in February, which states, “We understand that the DWS is working with you to address your recommendations to clarify the requirements for eligibility in their application materials.”

The DWS immigration FAQ page previously stated that child care benefits were not available to kids of parents who did not have U.S. immigration documents. That has since been updated, the regional manager noted in the letter. The website now says children may be eligible for benefits, even if a parent is not.

This was changed in December, Wickstrom said, “at the request of the advocates,” who “were concerned that potentially eligible families were discouraged from applying for child care assistance.”

“This language applies to all programs in Workforce Services and the eligibility requirements for each program must still be met,” she said. “Again, child care subsidies are only approved if parents are authorized to work in the U.S.”

The letter Schulz received in February from the regional manager also said, “We will continue to monitor the DWS’s efforts to address the concerns you have raised.”

Three days later, Archuleta sent a response saying there are still issues that need to be fixed.

For instance, Utah’s administrative rules state that child care assistance “is provided to support employment for U.S. citizens and qualified aliens authorized to work in the U.S.”

This “contradicts federal law and policy that make it clear the child [emphasis added by Archuleta] is the recipient of the subsidy and Utah is prohibited from considering the immigration status of the parents,” she wrote.

When asked who the Office of Child Care considers to be the primary beneficiary of the child care subsidy, Wickstrom said, “Although the child is the primary beneficiary, the parent must meet income and employment requirements to qualify for child care assistance.”

Working together to support families

For families denied child care subsidies and unable to afford care on their own, the options are to find a job that lets them bring their kids along to work, leave their kids at home, or drop out of the workforce to watch their children, according to Archuleta.

Many times, these families are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, said Gardner, of Holy Cross Ministries. And it’s important that they can find a safe place to send their children, where kids can learn and be as prepared to succeed when they start school as their peers from more affluent families, according to Gardner and Zurita.

“Ultimately, we all benefit” by helping mixed status families and marginalized communities access affordable, high-quality child care, Archuleta said, because parents are able to stay in the workforce, and children can have early-education opportunities.

These child care subsidy denials have “definitely sent a chilling effect to people,” according to Archuleta. “People who are undocumented are, first of all, really reluctant to get public benefits,” she said. And when they’re turned down, they don’t want to “make any waves” that could potentially jeopardize their legal status, she said.

“We really just feel the need to be the voice for the immigrant community” with this issue, Gardner said.

By making their concerns public, Archuleta said the goal is not to call out the state’s Office of Child Care. Instead, “we want to call them in” and come together on this issue, she said.

“But we just can’t stand by when there are so many families who are suffering, especially in the midst of the pandemic, and could so use these supports,” Archuleta said. “... I believe they have a commitment also to ensure all Utah families have what they need, and we want to work with them on that.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.