Exceptional Family Member Program Eases Challenges
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 22, 2012 Military relocations are stressful in their own right, but add the disabilities or special needs of family members, and a permanent change of station move can be overwhelming.
The Defense Department’s Exceptional Family Member Program aims to change that by considering exceptional family needs in relocations and in giving local support when service members and their families change duty stations, Rebecca L. Posante, deputy director of DOD’s Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs, which oversees the program, said.
Posante described the program in a June 19 interview with American Forces Press Service and The Pentagon Channel.
The Exceptional Family Member Program supports more than 120,000 enrolled families, but Posante thinks there are many more who could use the help. A diagnosis of a disability is not enough to qualify for relocation consideration, she said, a family member must be enrolled in the program.
“I wish I could get across to people that your child’s medical needs will be considered [under the program],” she said. “If you’re not enrolled, they won’t be considered.”
It also helps to be enrolled well before relocation is to take place, Posante said. In the Army, she said, less than 1 percent of soldiers missed an assignment or had to be returned to their previous duty station when their families were enrolled in the program. “If you’re not already enrolled, it holds up the process,” she said.
“The entire purpose … is to ensure that family members’ needs are being considered in assignments,” Posante said.
The program is open to anyone who needs specialized care, Posante said, and that can range from stuttering or special education to cancer or multiple sclerosis. The consideration may be temporary, based on the condition, and can extend to others, such as a parent, if they are a dependent of the service member’s, she said.
The program has three parts: the identification and documentation of needs, the coordination of assignments based on the needs, and support to families, Posante said.
The identification and documentation of needs must be performed by healthcare professionals or school administrators, Posante said. All infants and toddlers receiving early intervention services or children receiving school-based special education are automatically enrolled, she said.
Enrollment documents, known as Form 2792, once completed by a medical or education professional, are then sent to the service’s assignments office, which will make the final determination as to whether the next duty station would be able to support the family’s needs, Posante said.
Once a family is accepted into the program, they can receive support from program coordinators and others at their installation, Posante said. Every installation library has EFMP resources, she added, and childcare center workers have been trained on meeting exceptional needs.
“Most of the services our families need are outside the gate,” she said. Those services may include federal assistance, such as the Women, Infants and Children’s program, nonprofits like Special Olympics, and public schools.
While National Guard and reserve members cannot take part in the Exceptional Family Member Program since they typically don’t have forced family relocations, they can receive support through installation family centers and Military OneSource where they can speak with specialists, Posante said.
The Army and Marine Corps have worked with the special needs of family members about 30 years, Posante said, and the Navy and Air Force started programs more recently.
Jeremy Hilton knows the challenges of relocations firsthand. Hilton, husband of Air Force Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is a stay-at-home dad to the couple’s two young children, one of whom has multiple disabilities. The couple agreed after their daughter was born with hydrocephalus in 2002 that his career as a Navy submarine officer would be more disruptive, so he would leave the military while she stayed in. Even so, the couple was forced to move five times in four years. Renae Hilton had two deployments in that time, and through it all, their daughter had multiple, major surgeries.
The Hiltons’ experience propelled Jeremy, who was named Military Spouse of the Year last spring, to Capitol Hill where he fought for laws and policies to better support military families with special medical and educational needs.
The 2010 National Defense Authorization Act created the DOD Special Needs office and expanded funding for the Exceptional Family Member Program. All the services now budget for the program, Posante said.
The program has seen progress in the past year, including 120 new playgrounds for children with disabilities, training in all childcare centers, a parent toolkit of information, and a directory of special needs resources, Posante said. She encourages those with exceptional family members to reach out to new families coming onto the installation.
“If you’ve been dealing with this issue, consider being a sponsor to people in your community,” she said. “Families are going to know better than us the best places to take your child [with special needs] to a dentist, or the best schools [for their needs].”