RED WING, Minn.-Linda Hanisch often is the among first to know when a woman in her area is pregnant.
Hanisch, director at Learning Circle in Red Wing, said parents' hunt for child care openings typically starts in the early stages of pregnancy.
"If you're a first-time parent, you should know that you should be out looking in that first trimester to find your care," she said. "The ones who don't know they're supposed to do that are the ones really struggling."
The situation is being called a crisis in many areas outside of the Twin Cities, with reports easy to find of parents taking their children to communities 40 miles away.
Sometimes even the long trip is not possible and one parent may need to quit a job to care for a child. Finding a child care facility, whether in a home or a larger center, is tough on many parents.
In Detroit Lakes, Shauna Moran worries.
"My job has been put in jeopardy again," Moran said after placing her three children in an unlicensed child care facility after she could not find an opening at a licensed one. The unlicensed provider "wasn't open early enough," Moran said, and state aid is not available for unlicensed care. "Then she had to stop watching the kids, and I had to start looking for a new daycare again. I got written up for tardiness and missed work."
Megan Cluth of Zumbrota takes her 8-month-old son to a neighbor's home day care most days before work. She will need to find a new provider, however, to make room for another family who reserved and paid for the spot months ago.
"I can't even tell you how many days I've cried over it," she said between telephone calls to providers. "I can't not work. It's very frustrating."
Natasha Duel of Detroit Lakes had to stop taking college classes and working to care for her child.
"We have struggled with both having a job due to no daycare, and daycare assistance still will only cover so much," Duel said about her and her partner.
Red Wing's Learning Circle is typical of child care centers. It can take a maximum of 98 children, but is rarely able to enroll new children. The next spot opens in June.
"We hardly have anyone leave unless they move," Hanisch said.
A study by the Center for Rural Policy and Development found between 2006 and 2015 there was a growth of 5,039 spaces in greater Minnesota child care centers, but a 20,400-space loss in home-based facilities.
"People have been getting out of the in-home family child care business at a disturbing rate, creating a severe shortage over most of the state," researcher Marnie Werner of the center wrote in a report of what she called a child care crisis.
Werner's research shows that growth in the number of children under 5 remains fairly constant in most counties at 5 percent to 7 percent and is expected to remain at that level for years to come.
With greater Minnesota manufacturers and other businesses short on help, some are opening their own daycare centers. Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association in Brandon, near Alexandra, is one of them. The phone co-op opened a care center, not just for its employees, but for others in the community as well.
Many of the business-owned centers accept children from throughout the community, but their first priority is to attract and retain employees. Margaret Aho, the Head Start director with Mahube-Otwa in western Minnesota, said the organization that receives state and federal money is open to working with businesses, and even can provide financial aid to some families.
But, she said, businesses have to know up front that adding a child care facility "is not going to be a money-maker."
"Child care is an expensive endeavor..." Aho said. "People are in it because they love children."
Greater Minnesota parents face issues not seen by those in the Twin Cities.
First, the cost of operating a child care center is about the same in rural and urban areas, but greater Minnesota parents' wages generally are lower. Second, urban and suburban residents have many more centers within easy driving distance than those in rural Minnesota.
Chris Reich, family child care licensor for Goodhue County, said increased training requirements could be among factors leading home providers to close shop. Providers "work long hours (taking care of children), and then you've got training and book work outside of that," Reich said.
Donna Meyer opened a day care on her family's 160-acre farm between Red Wing and Goodhue eight years ago and was recognized as Goodhue County's top child care provider in 2014.
Although Meyer finds her job rewarding and enjoys help from her husband, she said long hours, isolation and liabilities often deter people from working in child care.
"Sometimes you spend more time with a child in a week than their parents do," she said. "When rules are made in government they might not have a clear picture of what is feasible for the child. It's not just any one regulation, it's a combination of everything."