COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) — At Treasure House Child Development Center, year-old toddlers amiably line up for outside time. Preschoolers are finishing up on the playground. It's water day on Tuesday, and one little girl pours a bucketful over her head and squeals. A little boy plays solo at a raised sandbox, and more children run around, wet and laughing.
Soon, four fewer children will learn through carefully constructed, educational playtime at Treasure House in Covington, a top-rated early childhood development center. Their parents no longer will receive Kentucky Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, funds.
Others will drop out, too, as the dates approach when their CCAP eligibility runs out. Some children might never see the inside of the top-rated center because of a freeze on applications for CCAP funding that began on April 1.
An estimated 1,800 Northern Kentucky children will be affected by the freeze and eligibility cuts in the state assistance program.
On Monday, family income eligibility for the Kentucky CCAP was reduced from 150 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent.
The eligibility change will affect about 14,300 children and 8,700 families in Kentucky per month as they come up for assistance renewal. This cut also will reduce revenue for 2,442 child-care providers, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Northern Kentucky has about 3,900 CCAP children, and local child care program leaders believe 1,800 will be prevented from attending care centers here, said Mike Hammons, children's advocate for Children Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides developmental child care.
Treasure House, which serves children from 6 weeks old to kindergarten age, is one of Children Inc.'s sites.
The state cabinet will save about $19.4 million in fiscal year 2014 from the eligibility drop and $38.4 million from the freeze in applications, according to the cabinet's Department for Community Based Services.
The loss to children and their families is immeasurable, according to Northern Kentucky children's advocates.
"I don't think people generally are aware of early childhood development and how you set a person's course for his life," Hammons said.
"If funding for child care is not restored in the state budget, the end result will be fewer children prepared for success in kindergarten and fewer families able to participate in the workforce," said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, manager of United Way of Greater Cincinnati Strategic Resources and Public Policy.
The cuts largely affect children whose parents work but earn low wages and cannot afford quality child care.
"We see it as a two-generational movement out of poverty," Hammons said. "You stabilize mom or dad with education and job training. At the same time, the kids get the foundation they need."
Whitney Costner of Covington said her 3-year-old son Braedon is among the children who will lose care at a center whose staff has stimulated his learning. Her daughter, 7-year-old Raniyah, will miss cherished summer fun.
"I'm scrambling, trying to figure out what to do, having to ask my mom to help," said Costner, a single mother managing a full-time job and full-time schooling at Northern Kentucky University.
Braedon has attended Aunt Kathy's Child Care in Highland Heights full time, and Raniyah has spent summers there.
"The kids benefit a lot," Costner said. "My son, he knows his letters. He knows how to count past 20. They've been able to make friends and socialize. If they're just in the home, there's no other kids around. It's mostly TV and video games."
Costner has been paying $35 per week for Braedon's care and $60 per week for the two kids during the summer.
Without CCAP, she'd have to pay $245 per week for her children's care. She said she's lucky her mother, Fanita Costner, also of Covington, can help, but the situation isn't ideal.
If she can't find an alternative by fall, Bradeon will stand with his grandmother or sit in her car on cold or rainy days while she works as a school crossing guard in Covington.
The Department of Community Based Services has "aggressively managed revenues and expenditures over the past six years, helping ... avoid drastic reductions in services before now," Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said.
State budget and federal funding cuts coupled with an escalating need for state assistance left the department with no way to avoid cuts, Bond said.
CBSD Commissioner Teresa James said in February the agency had been coping with budget cuts since 2008. A faltering economy with people working low-paying jobs and needing assistance also has fueled the problem of too many cases with too little funding.
"This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make," James said.
Julie Witten, director of Kentucky Services, 4C for Children based in Covington, is among Northern Kentucky children's advocates tracking the impact of the cuts.
Already, she said, 148 children in the region - Boone, Campbell, Kenton, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Owen and Pendleton counties - have lost CCAP and eight centers have closed.
"This is just the beginning," Witten said.
Children Inc. is raising funds for its endowment and trying to find other ways to help offset child-care costs for parents who are losing CCAP.
"We are reaching out to parents now to try to help them as much as we can to deal with these cuts," Hammons said. "We're calling them and seeing if they can pay a little bit more and maybe we can pay a little bit more, and trying to see what alternative arrangements can be made."
In addition, Kentucky's Voice for Early Childhood, a statewide, online children's advocacy network, is asking parents losing CCAP to tell their story at www.kyvoice.wordpress.com. This helps identify families in need.
For Costner, the CCAP cut hurt not only her children but her feelings.
At 24, she is doing her best to make a future that is secure for her family.
She works full time as a specialist in the NKU Registrar's Office and is on her way to acquiring a bachelor of science degree from the university's College of Business Informatics next May.
If she didn't have her mother's help, she might have lost her future, she said.
"It makes me a little upset," Costner said. "It feels like the state wants you to be in poverty to get assistance. I'm lucky to have a support system to be able to move forward."
"People who want to get ahead, they have to have another way."
Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, http://www.nky.com