A resident of Thief River Falls, Minn., might not realize there’s an acute shortage of childcare in the area – that is, unless they are a parent of a small child, or a childcare provider or employer.

Minnesota’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) says there’s an overall decline in childcare providers in the state. In greater Minnesota, where in-home daycare providers make up the lion’s share of available care, those providers have shrunk by at least 30 percent.

“There are over 3,000 slots that are needed in the 12 counties of the northwest region,” Joan Berntson of First Children’s Finance said. “So it’s a really significant need.”

And that means young families in rural and outstate Minnesota are hit the hardest. The area’s largest employers also can’t retain or attract the workers it needs because childcare is not available, unaffordable or located too far away. City leaders, including many from the business community, started a task force more than a year ago to assess the problem. But they discovered that there is no single solution.

“A community like Thief River Falls is going to have different needs than Warroad or Roseau,” said Beth Nelson, chair of the Thief River Falls Area Childcare Task Force.

One roadblock appears to be state licensing rules that restrict the number of kids per teacher or supervising adult, depending on the age group and type of childcare facility. Many say this ratio makes it a challenge to find qualified childcare workers in rural communities.

While the DHS is trying to reduce regulatory complexities, officials say it’s a balance between ensuring the health and safety of children and providers, and becoming nimble to respond to the ongoing situation.

“This is really a dynamic issue, it’s not something that DHS can address on its own,” said Nikki Farago, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of of Human Services. “There are so many sociological factors at play, and there’s more work to be done.”

In January, the department announced new grants totaling $1.5 million, including $600,000 from private and community donations, to work on the issue in greater Minnesota. The money was distributed across six Minnesota Initiative Foundations in the state to assess the problem regionally and come up with solutions.

“We’re making headway and having a conversation,” said Fargo. “We still need to get a better understanding of the childcare deserts and why they exist.”

Wondering what the DHS handles as an organization? The short answer is just about everything – but this illustrated essay will give you a primer on what the agency does and does not do.

Discover more stories from our “One Greater Minnesota” reporting initiative.