Looking for Child Care?

Parents make very important decisions in looking for and selecting a child care site for their children. The following information is intended to help parents understand the choices they have to make within a complicated system.

The majority of child care centers and family child care homes are licensed by the California Department of Social Services (DSS) to ensure that minimum health and safety standards are met. Child care programs or providers that are not licensed by the State may be exempt from the requirement to obtain a license (see descriptions of exempt programs and providers below) 

What is the Santa Cruz County Centralized Eligibility List?

The Santa Cruz County Centralized Eligibility List (Santa Cruz County CEL) is an internet system that gives parents access to 21 subsidized child development contractors that together run more than 50 programs in the Santa Cruz County. Participating programs share eligibility information from applying families/children. Programs are encouraged by the State to enroll from a centralized list.

Some programs funded by various government agencies do not enroll from the CEL; they keep their own separate eligibility (waiting) lists to use for enrollment. However, these programs are encouraged to refer families to the CEL if their program cannot serve those families. If you are interested in enrollment in the following programs, you should contact them directly, but you can also get listed on the CEL so you can access other programs, too.

  • Cabrillo College Child Care Programs – Children’s Center and Casa Piqueña family
    child care network

  • University of California, Santa Cruz Child Care Programs

  • Migrant programs

There are also some subsidized child care programs funded from different sources that do not yet participate in the Santa Cruz County CEL. If any of these might meet your needs, contact them directly, but remember, you can ALSO be added to the CEL:

  • Head Start, Early Start and Migrant Head Start, for preschool and younger children

  • After School Education and Safety (ASES) and 21st Century Learning programs, for school age children


What is Subsidized Child Care?

Subsidized child care is assistance to income eligible families to cover part or all of their child care costs, depending on their financial and child care needs. Subsidized child care may be provided in centers or homes through family child care networks that receive direct funding, or through Alternative Payment Programs that fund care with a range of providers selected through informed parental choice. Among the list of income eligible families, priority for subsidized care is given to children from Child Protective Services, and at-risk families referred by social services professionals. Service to children in these priority groups is time-limited, although the families may continue in care based on other eligibility and need factors.

Who is eligible for subsidized services?

Parents must live in Santa Cruz County, meet income requirements, and have at least one of the following needs:

  • Working or actively seeking employment.

  • Medically incapacitated

  • Receiving Child Protective Services

  • Attending school or a job-related program that leads directly to a recognized trade, profession or para-profession.

  • Actively seeking permanent housing (for homeless families only)

Some centers also serve, or give priority to, families from special groups, such as centers that primarily serve teen parents who are secondary school students, or centers located at subsidized housing developments that give priority to families living in the complex, or programs that serve families living in migrant worker camps. There are also Campus child care programs that primarily serve students.

How does the Santa Cruz County CEL work?

In simple terms, once your family is determined eligible, your information gets inputted in a single list where all applying families are ranked by need. Your need is compared with the rest of applying families and following state regulations a dynamic place is assigned to your family. Because the places given to families are not fixed and change every time a new family is entered we are unable to inform families of when they will be the next to be served. When participating programs have an opening, it is up to their staff to contact the parent of the first ranked family to initiate their enrollment process. It is important for parents to know that the Santa Cruz County CEL system is only the keeper of the applicants’ information; we do not offer direct services to the families and we do not know when openings will occur at the participating programs.

What information do I need to provide when contacting the Santa Cruz County CEL or when applying directly to a participating program?

You will be asked to answer or to fill-out the Standard Intake Form with your family’s information, income, and the reasons for seeking subsidized care. You also need to provide copies of documents verifying your family’s income sources (including income from self-employment, federal cash aid programs and other income like child support) also provide copies of the birth certificates for all children seeking services.

What can I do to improve my chances of receiving services sooner?

The most important thing you can do is to keep your family information current. In order to keep you application active, you are required to contact Santa Cruz County CEL whenever your information changes, and whenever the CEL Administrator (Voucher Project) sends you a request to update your information. Failure to do so will cause your application to become inactive, and you will not be considered for slots being filled. It is very important to keep the CEL administration informed of a new address, a new phone, a change in employment or if your family size has changed. When a participating child care program calls to enroll your family, make sure you ask if they need any additional information and be prepared to give it to them.

How can I choose my own provider and not one of the participating Santa Cruz County CEL providers?

When applying for subsidized care, parents can request services from specific Santa Cruz County CEL contractors by choosing them as their “preferred provider”. Parents that would like to choose from programs or providers not participating in Santa Cruz County CEL will need to choose the Alternative Payment Program as their “preferred provider”, and also check with the Alternative Payment Program to be sure the family’s preferred provider is eligible to receive reimbursements from their programs.

What is an Alternative Payment Program?
Alternative Payment Programs (APPs) are funded through the California Department of Education, Child Development Division. APPs offer childcare subsidies that pay full or partial reimbursement for child care services to providers on behalf of families who are income eligible and have a qualifying need for childcare services.

The AP program is a “parental choice” program because enrolled families can choose from among most child care providers in the area, the one that best fits the needs of their children and their own needs. Direct services from AP programs include:

  • further determination of family eligibility, beyond the information given on the CEL application

  • education of parents and providers

  • contribution of data for needs assessments

  • interaction with child care providers to support services to participating families, including reimbursement for services

  • provision of technical assistance and referrals to various other community services for families and providers

If the AP program calls you for an opening, it is important that you understand the different types of child care available. The following information may help:

What types of Child Care are available in the State of California? 
Types of programs and providers fall into the following categories:

  • Licensed Child Care Centers 

  • Licensed Family Child Care Homes

  • License-exempt Programs

  • License-exempt individual Providers

What is a Licensed Child Care Center?
A Licensed Child Care Center may operate four types of licenses and a single center may have one or more of these licenses. Additionally the director and teachers in licensed centers are required to have completed a certain amount of formal course work in early childhood education, including classes in child development and health and safety:

Infant Care: Licensed to care for children ages birth up to two years of age, they are required to maintain a ratio of one adult to four infants.

Preschool Care: Licensed to care for children ages two until enrolling in kindergarten, they are required to maintain a ratio of one adult to every twelve children. 

School Age Care: Licensed to care for children who are enrolled in kindergarten and above, they are required to maintain a ratio of one adult to every fourteen children. 

Mildly Ill: Licensed to provide non-medical care to mildly ill children of all ages. Level I programs operate as components of Child Care Centers and may serve only those children in the regular program. Level II centers are freestanding facilities and may care for children with contagious conditions.

What is a Licensed Family Child Care Home?
Family Child Care Homes are licensed to care for children in the provider’s residence with certain limits on the numbers of children and combinations of ages at any one time. Family child care home providers are required to have training in basic health and safety for the protection of children in their care:

Small Family Child Care Homes: Licensed to care for up to eight children—two of the children must be at least six years old and no more than two infants under two years of age are cared for when more than six children are present; or six children with a limit of three infants under two years of age; or four infants only. This count includes the provider's children under the age of ten.

Large Family Child Care Homes: Licensed to care for up to fourteen children—two of the children must be at least six years old and no more than two infants are cared for when more than six children are present; or twelve children with a limit of four infants under two years of age. This count includes the provider's children under the age of ten. A second caregiver must be present whenever more than eight children are present.

What is a License-Exempt Program?
License-Exempt Programs are exempted from licensing regulations for the following reasons:

  • Programs are operated on public school sites, but only when the program is operated by the school or school district, with their own employees, for school age children and primarily for children from that school or district.

  • Programs are located at a private elementary school, by the school with its own employees, and more than 95 percent of children in care are from their own school

  • Programs are operated on Federal property, such as military bases, or on Native American reservation property

  • Recreation programs that are operated by a government entity (public recreation programs), with certain restrictions on the hours and weeks of operations.

  • Private recreation programs, but only when operated as summer camps or “organized camps”

What is an Exempt Provider?
Exempt Provider is an individual who takes care of the children of only one family other than their own. If the family being cared for is receiving assistance with their child care costs, the provider must obtain a background check. The exceptions to this requirement are grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

What questions should I be prepared to answer when calling for a licensed Childcare Referral from CDRC, the Resources and Referral Agency?

  •  Decide where you would like child care - near your home? School? Work?

  •  Do you need full time or part time care?

  •  Do you need any special services such as transportation to school or evening hours?

  • What days do you need care - weekdays or also weekends?

  • Does your child have any special needs?

  • What is the name of the closest public elementary school where care is needed?

 Be sure to have paper and pencil ready to write down referral names and numbers. Schedule uninterrupted time for a quality referral call. If you have access to the internet, you may also go to the CDRC website request referrals online.

How Do I Measure Quality Care in a Family Childcare Environment or Childcare Center? 
There are many ways to judge the quality of care.  Below are some ideas and thoughts to consider during your evaluation of a Childcare Center or Family Based Childcare environment.

Child-to-staff ratio & group size
Lower child-to-staff ratios and smaller group sizes are associated with higher quality in child care centers in a number of studies.

Staff turnover & compensation
Staff turnover rates can be very high in child care centers, averaging roughly three times the rate of turnover of public school teachers at this time. Turnover has a clear connection to quality of programs, and is higher in some programs than in others.

Staff education and specific training in child-related fields

The general education level (number of years of schooling) and specific training in child-related fields are both related to quality of programs. Regulations from both State Licensing and from funders generally indicate the minimum requirements for education and training. Some programs may have staff that exceed the minimums.

Director competency

The performance of the program director, particularly as it relates to providing leadership in program functioning at the administrative level, predicts program quality.

Safe and sanitary design and maintenance of the physical environment

Research has clearly demonstrated the value of requiring hygienic practices, particularly stressing the value of hand washing, in the reduction of the spread of infectious diseases in child care facilities.

Relationships and activities

Aspects of programs that have a significant impact on children, but are more difficult to regulate or judge include:

  • continuity of child relationships with adults

  • emphasis on child-initiated activities

  • child participation in representational play

  • the ability to have a positive relationship between the parents and staff

What should I Look for in a Childcare Provider’s Records?
The licensing requirements for a Center based or Family Home Childcare Provider include the requirement for a provider to have:

  • Admission policies

  • Daily practices and procedures

  • Emergency plans

  • Background Clearances

  • Staff accreditation and qualifications 

Regulations also specify requirements for the:

  • Facility

  • Equipment

  • Meals and nutrition

It is strongly recommended that parents check the licensing history of the provider they select before placing their child in care by making an appointment to review the provider's record. Records are available through the California Department of Social Services, Community Care Licensing, San Jose District Office. Call them at (408) 324-2148 for information about reviewing a provider’s file. This agency is responsible for both Center and Family Child Care Home licensing in Santa Cruz County. They require 24 hour advance notice for you to review a provider file at their office.

License-exempt providers (individuals who are not required to obtain a license) may be listed in the State Trustline Registry, especially if they have cared for children whose parents participated in a subsidized, voucher-style program. Being cleared through the Trustline process means a provider’s background has been checked and is free of convictions for serious crimes. Ask a potential provider about Trustline clearance and if the provider says he or she has been cleared, call (800) 822-8490 to check.