Military Child Care: The Best Is Yet to Come
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 18, 2000 Already hailed as the best of its kind in the nation, DoD's child development program will be even better in the future, according to Linda Smith, head of DoD's Office of Family Policy.
The White House lauded the military program last year as a model for the nation. This spring, the National Women's Law Center cited the program for its quality, affordability and availability.
Center co-director Nancy Duff Campbell, released a report, "Be All That We Can Be: Lessons From the Military for Improving Our Nation's Child Care System," at a May 16 Pentagon press conference. The 40-page document, based on a six-month study, calls the program a model for national child care reform and highlights lessons that policymakers, advocates and others can use to improve civilian child care.
Smith, who's devoted a 22-year government career to child care and family issues, attributes DoD's success to the countless people throughout the services who have worked to improve the child care system over the past decade.
"There was a collective will in DoD to change child care," the family policy director said. "Along with the leadership's commitment, many people at all levels of DoD worked to fix the problems."
The Military Child Care Act of 1989 authorized funding for child development centers, set fees based on family income and government matches and set up subsidies for family child care. It tied caregivers' wages to training requirements and established an accreditation initiative, inspection regime and child abuse prevention and safety procedures.
Smith, who became head of DoD's child care and youth programs in 1989 and director of the Office of Family Policy in 1995, worked with Pentagon policymakers, commanders and child care providers to develop a comprehensive system that would meet families' needs. While the law primarily focused on child care centers, DoD went beyond the law in applying its requirements across the board.
"The law seeded the effort," Smith said. "The leadership supported it. We, in policy, determined the need to create the whole system. And everybody in the services worked to find the money and fight for the changes."
Today, the military child development program links child care centers, family child care homes, after school programs and resource and referral services. What was once an underfunded, loosely organized effort is now a top military priority. Military and congressional leaders acknowledge the link between child care and operational readiness.
About half of today's service members have one or more children below school age, Smith said. The military community includes about 500,000 children under age 5, 440,000 ages 6 to 11, and nearly 295,000 ages 12 to 18.
Despite its success, however, Smith stressed, it's not time for DoD to rest on its laurels. "To move the program forward, we need to keep re-examining the program. We do have things left to do."
For example, she noted, about one-third of military children are cared for in private homes. "We can do a lot more to support family child care providers. We still have some work to do to reassure parents that family child care homes offer the same quality and are as safe as child development centers."
DoD currently meets 58 percent of military families' need for child care, Smith said. The goal is to meet 80 percent of the need by 2005. "The military has successfully focused on quality and affordability, but we now need to focus on availability.
"The hard part is still ahead," she said. "DoD has expanded its child development program to its physical limits. We've shifted base programs from one location to another and used all the space we can possibly renovate or convert. We now need to focus on partnerships with civilian communities."
To meet its goals, Smith said, DoD needs to work with the civilian sector to improve child care. This can be done by partnering with civilian child care centers, co- establishing after-school programs at public schools and licensing family child care homes off base.
"One of the biggest obstacles to us making these moves off base is the inconsistent quality of civilian child care," she said. "The law center report highlights the need for civilian child care reform."
Smith's expertise will now go toward helping the civilian community improve its child care services. She is slated to leave DoD this summer, detailed to work on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.