A new law went into effect in Germany on Thursday guaranteeing every child over 12 months of age a slot at a daycare facility. The government hopes the policy will help reverse one of Europe's lowest birth rates.
When Irena Schauk learned that her 14-month-old son would not be receiving a place in a daycare center in Berlin's central Mitte district, the news disappointed the mother, but came as little surprise. The struggle to find slots at the Kita -- short for Kindertagesstätte, the German word for a nursery -- can be Sisyphean for working parents in some parts of the country. Schauk, 29, says she'd been hearing Kita war stories for years.
"I had heard about parents outbidding one another and offering extravagant gifts to nursery managers," Schauk says. She adds that several other acquaintances also received rejection letters -- with one family finding a slot in an inconveniently located daycare center and another mother instead opting to stay home to care for her child.
A new law in Germany that went into effect on Thursday seeks to improve the situation for working parents like Schauk. Under the new rules, all parents with a child aged 12 months or older have the right to a slot in a daycare center. Previously, the rule applied only to parents with children aged three or older. It also provides any parent whose child is denied a slot with a legal provision to challenge the decision, though some have warned the option could prove expensive and might not make a difference anyway -- especially if there literally is no daycare option available in a community.
In the run-up to the new law, the German media has been filled with reports about a rush to build new daycare centers across the country to meet the additional demand. Last year, a national drug store chain went bust, and some of the empty retail spaces are now being transformed for use as new daycare centers. Because the centers lack playgrounds, children are brought to nearby parks for outdoor physical activity. One company even claims to have delivered several hundred Quonset hut-like containers for use as Kitas. Communities are improvising across Germany to abide by the law, converting warehouses, theaters and even car repair shops into daycare centers. The problems are particularly acute in densely populated urban areas like central Munich, where little real estate is available for new daycare centers.
Despite a pledge by German Family Minister Kristina Schröder that a sufficient number of daycare places would be available by the August 1 deadline, experts have warned that in urban areas especially, the government's goal is little more than wishful thinking. In many areas, the infrastructure isn't even in place to accommodate the children. Only three weeks ago, the German Association of Cities warned that 90,000 of the more than 800,000 daycare slots pledged by Schröder still weren't ready.