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DoD Child Care: A Model for the Nation

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 25, 1997 – In 1985, Linda K. Smith heard the keynote speaker at a national conference call DoD's child care program "the ghetto of American child care."

She was humiliated.

April 17, Smith heard President Clinton hail military child care as the nation's model of excellence.

She was ecstatic.

"People need to be proud of what's happened," said Smith, director of DoD's Office of Family Policy. "We really have come a long way. A lot of people have invested a lot of hard work to come this far."

When Congress passed the 1989 Military Child Care Act, Smith said, it expected DoD's child care program to do for child care what the military has done for racial integration and drug and alcohol reduction. But at the time, she said, many commanders did not believe their military mission included caring for service members' children.

As more and more spouses moved into the work force, however, "child care became an integral part of the military doing its job," Smith said. "As every parent knows, it's a basic issue of being able to go to work." The result: DoD's child care program grew and steadily improved, Smith said.

The president lauded DoD's program during The White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. He praised the military for requiring its child care programs to meet national standards. He commended DoD for providing adequate funding;strict oversight; improved caregiver training, pay and benefits; and strong family care networks.

In a memorandum to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Clinton asked the military to help improve child care throughout the nation. He asked DoD officials to partner military programs with civilian community child care facilities. He also wants the military to create training centers, share program information and help train welfare recipients at DoD child care facilities.

Military child care came into the national spotlight when Smith's office responded to a White House request for a report on department support for children. Smith's staff met a three-week suspense date, publishing a report entitled "Department of Defense: Our Children, America's Future -- Defense Policies and Programs for Children in Their Earliest Years." It earned an "A-plus, plus" from White House officials, Smith said.

The report outlined DoD's child care policies and programs, highlighting the fact that 72 percent -- 337 out of 466 -- of DoD's programs for children aged three months through five years are nationally accredited. Only 5 to 7 percent of civilian centers are accredited. DoD required the rest of their programs to meet national standards by 1996. All are now in the process of being accredited, Smith said.

DoD has the largest employer-sponsored child care program in the world, serving more than 200,000 children aged three months to 12 years, Smith said. The program includes 466 pre-school-age centers, about 350 school-age programs and nearly 10,000 family care homes.

"We have the quality we do because we subsidize the program," Smith said. The department helps make care affordable for military families -- DoD's fiscal 1997 child care budget is $273.3 million. Parents pay about 50 percent of the cost, Smith said. Military parents pay about $65 per week, whereas parents in civilian communities may pay anywhere from about $120 up to about $200 a week, she said.

"A lot of government money goes into child care in the civilian world -- somewhere around $4 billion -- but it's all in subsidies to low-income families, as opposed to child-care providers," Smith said. "We give money to programs rather than to parents." Giving money to parents may buy child care, she said, but it doesn't necessarily buy quality, training or improve child care providers' wages.

DoD child care providers earn about double what civilian counterparts earn in pay and benefits, Smith said. DoD pays about $10 an hour including benefits. Providers start at GS-2 and work up to GS-4. Civilian community providers generally earn minimum wage -- $4.75 an hour, she said.

In 1990, DoD's program linked training required for national certification with pay incentives, Smith said. "Our [annual] turnover rate has dropped to below 40 percent as opposed to what it used to be -- about 65 percent in the states to as high as 300 percent overseas. People stay with us, and because they have standardized training, they can transfer within the services and maintain their grades." Most of DoD's child care providers are spouses of active duty or retired military members, Smith said.

The new challenge for Smith and her staff is to fulfill the president's request. Expanding DoD services will take money -- about $3 million a year, Smith estimates. Family policy officials are seeking added funding for fiscal 1997 to get new program initiatives rolling, she said.

Clinton tasked DoD to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to develop child care center partnerships. At many installations, Smith said, partner programs are already underway. Military child care facilities will broaden efforts to adopt civilian centers, helping with accreditation and sharing training programs, she said.

Clinton asked DoD to set up "Child Care Programs of Excellence" to serve as models for child care centers, family child care homes and school-age facilities. DoD officials are considering naming 13 to 20 existing military programs to serve as regional training models, Smith said. "People can come in and look at how we do things," Smith said. "They can see how we approach inspections, training, accreditation."

Military child care program managers would apply for program of excellence status and compete for funds to expand staffs and services to train state and local providers.

DoD plans to set up a speakers bureau to train local military child care officials for public appearances in surrounding communities, Smith said. DoD officials are slated to speak at this year's annual conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told DoD officials they will be on the agenda of a White House conference on child care in September, Smith said.

At the president's request, DoD will make information available on training and compensation, accreditation and evaluation, playground and facility design and financing strategies. Smith said her staff hope to establish a clearing house for child care information. They will also model a child care home page after the family center website they are currently preparing for public access via the Internet.

Clinton also tasked DoD to work with local officials to use military child development centers and family child care homes as training sites for welfare recipients. The Marine Corps at Quantico, Va., has such a program under way, Smith said. Prince William County, Va., pays for a 90-day job training program which places people in Marine Corps child care facilities. Trainees do not replace DoD workers, but supplement the staff, Smith said. "We get additional help; they get on-the-job training."

The Quantico program is working well and management is quite happy with it, Smith said. Marine Corps officials are particularly impressed with the quality of the people they're getting. "There are a lot of displaced homemakers who, because of divorce, are suddenly thrown onto the welfare roles," Smith said. "There's no guarantee of a job, but I wouldn't be surprised if we end up hiring some of them."

All trained under the president's initiative will be taught parenting skills, and they will work with certified child care providers, Smith said. They will also go through the same screening process as regular hires. All DoD child care providers undergo intense background checks, she said. "We would not relax that standard."

Over the years, Smith said, DoD has truly become "a mover and a shaker" when it comes to effecting social change. "Change is often painful at first, but eventually, people understand and are proud of what they've accomplished," she said. "I hope the military is proud of what it's accomplished in child care."

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