DoD, Services Work to Expand Child Care
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2000 DoD's child care program may be hailed as the model for the nation, but family policy officials here are determined to make the best even better.
Carolee Van Horn, a program analyst in DoD's Office of Children and Youth, addressess family program specialists Aug. 24 at the DoD Family Readiness Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
About half of all military families have one or more children below school age, according to DoD officials, and in 60 percent of these families, both parents work. Currently, DoD meets about 58 percent of the need for child care. Individually, the Army is at 61 percent; Navy, 55 percent; Air Force, 57 percent; and Marine Corps, 58 percent.
"Right now, we need about 20,000 spaces to achieve our interim goal of 65 percent by 2003," said Carolee Van Horn, a program analyst in DoD's Office of Children and Youth. DoD's ultimate goal is to achieve 80 percent by 2005, she said.
When people know their children are getting quality child care, "they're more apt to perform better on the job, which then leads to mission readiness," she said. Family readiness is now recognized as vital to military readiness, she said.
Today there are more than 800 military child development centers worldwide, including school-age care centers, and more than 9,000 family child care homes. Over the past six years, DoD has added substantial funding to child care programs for subsidies and improvements to facilities.
"All of the services are committed to expanding the availability of quality care by sharing best practices and exploring options such as expanding home-based care for infants and toddlers," she said.
Home-based care is "the largest untapped portion of our child care program," according to Bernard D. Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "We must put the same focus and creativity in increasing the in-home care system as we have done for our much-sought-after child care centers," he said. Van Horn, Rostker and other DoD and service officials discussed efforts to expand child care at the DoD Family Readiness Conference in Phoenix, Ariz., Aug. 22 to 24.
Rostker was instrumental in improving the Navy's child care program as a former assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs. At that time, rather than continue focusing on costly center-based care, he tasked the Navy to shift the youngest children to home-based care and move 3- to 5-year-olds to center-based care.
Similar changes today in all the services, he said, would be both cost effective for the military and good for the children. Increasing the number of spaces in family child care homes would help meet the shortage of child care and provide employment opportunities for spouses, he said.
DoD officials estimate the annual appropriated-fund share of infant care costs in a child development center is about $7,000 per child, compared to about $2,400 for subsidized home-based care.
Waiting lists for child development centers exist throughout the military. This is partially because parents' fees for center- based care are often much lower than for home-based care. The services currently subsidize all child development centers, but only some family care homes. Providing subsidies for home-based care would help meet DoD's need for child care, Rostker said.
A pilot Navy program in the Southwest, for example, successfully shifted 50 percent of the infants and toddlers from centers to home-based care using subsidies, according to Kathleen O'Connor, Child Development Home coordinator at the Navy Personnel Command. The subsidy program also attracted about 140 new home- based care providers, she added.
Parents paid the same fee whether using home-based care or a child development center, O'Connor said. The Navy paid the difference based on a ceiling set by the local market cost of child care. In San Diego, for example, the ceiling fee is $130 a week -- the service member pays a portion of that based on total family income and the Navy pays the rest.
While customer surveys indicate parents are equally satisfied with center-based and home-based care, some parents have voiced concern about the reliability of home-based care providers -- what happens if they get sick or go on vacation. Some parents also tend to see child care centers as providing more developmental opportunities than in-home care, which they perceive as "baby-sitting."
Navy officials launched a marketing campaign to address these issues, to attract home-based care providers and to recruit more customers, O'Connor said. Officials emphasized that family care homes meet the Navy's rigorous child care standards and that the providers are trained in early childhood education.
Navy officials also looked at the provider turnover rate and the need to develop a retention program. As a result, the Navy created a new logo and image for family child care. Family care homes were renamed "Navy Child Development Homes," which, according to the Navy's new slogan, offer "quality child care in a loving, learning environment."
O'Connor said she attended the Pearl Harbor kickoff in May of the Navy-wide campaign to promote professionalism. Child Development Home providers attending a training night all said they loved it, she reported. "They do feel professional. They felt like part of a system, having all of these identifying logos, etc."
The providers also discussed procedures such as having visitors sign in. "If parents come to interview and you make them sign in, then they realize you're a professional and that their child will be safe," she said.
Marine Corps Efforts
Mike Berger, head of the Marine Corps' Children and Youth Programs at Quantico, Va., echoed the call for more home-based care.
"We're not going to get to our ultimate goal of 80 percent without expanding family child care," he said. "We've got to get our parents to perceive family child care as equitable to our center-based care. We've got to get across to our parents that quality child care can happen in our family child care homes. It doesn't just happen in our centers."
Marine Corps resource and referral specialists need to understand the quality of care family providers can offer, Berger noted. "Resource and referral specialists should look at family child care as a viable option for meeting families' child care needs," he said.
Like the other services, the Marine Corps is now using subsidies as incentives to expand family child care and particularly to increase the number of infant and toddler spaces in family child care homes.
"Our centers can't absorb all of the infants and toddlers," Berger said. "When we have waiting lists, it's usually for infant care. We provide a larger subsidy for those homes that are willing to provide those spaces."
Larger subsidies are also offered providers who care for children with special needs, those willing to provide extended and overnight care, and those willing to become accredited. By providing incentives to improve quality, Berger said, "we think our parents are going to be more apt to use family child care."
Family child care is a major source of spouse employment in the services, he said. Like the other services, however, the Marines also have a problem retaining family care homes.
"If we raise the quality of family child care, people might be more willing to become providers and it will also increase provider longevity," he said. He cautioned the services not to put all their eggs in one basket. "Increasing family child care is great," he said, "but unless it's just one pillar in an overall approach, I think we're going to set ourselves up to fail.
"We've got to continue to push military construction for centers. We've got to continue to expand our school age care programs. And we've got to continue to work our resource and referral programs so we can identify other expansion opportunities within the civilian sectors."
Joe Perreault, Family Child Care program manager, Child and Youth Directorate, Army Community and Family Support Center, expressed a similar concern.
"There's a delicate balancing act here," he said. "We cannot load all of the difficult child care problems on family child care providers. Or, at least if we're going to do that, we have to be a very supportive community to those family child care providers." Training and staff support are "always very critical in the family child care side of the house," Perreault said.
The Army's 3,000 family child care providers are considered vital to mission readiness, he said. "They address a variety of child care needs during deployments and high optempo." Family child care providers, for instance, offer hourly care, and that helps service members and civilian employees who work long hours, shifts, evenings and weekends. They also offer short-term overnight child care for deployed soldiers.
The Army has offered family child care subsidies since 1990 that have proved effective in recruiting providers and addressing customer concerns about affordability, availability and quality, he said.
Up until now, installations could decide which family child care subsidies to offer. A new Army policy changes that system in fiscal 2001. "It's a new phase in the evolution of our thinking about the family child care program," Perreault said.
In order to assure predictability Army-wide, installations will provide a minimum set of subsidies, he said. Required direct subsidies would include extended hours care, long-term care, infant-toddler homes, special needs and hourly care. The new rules also require that families earning $23,000 or less be subsidized for the difference in rates between the home-based provider and the child care center. Another requirement is for Department of Agriculture reimbursements for meals served to enrolled children and Army supplemental food reimbursements for meals provided during extended care hours.
The change also requires installations to provide indirect subsidies, such as family child care resource libraries, home starter kits, provider training during duty hours, and a risk insurance management program. Additional subsidies for respite care and other programs remain optional.
The Army also is establishing Child Development Group homes that will have two providers serving seven to 12 children in unoccupied quarters. Another option is to have three or four providers serving between 13 to 18 children in unoccupied quarters on or off the installation. Army guidance for establishing child development group homes is expected to be issued this fall, Perreault said.
Child Development Group homes feature the best elements of a family child care home and a child development center, he said. "It's intimate, it's homelike and conveniently located in a neighborhood. Group homes provide a group experience many families are seeking," he said. They also provide more adults to supervise the children.
"Certain parents may be uncomfortable with leaving their child in family child care because it's only one person behind closed doors," he said. "As soon as you say there will be at least two people there, then there's a trust element that they tend to associate with child development centers."
Having more than one provider also means greater reliability. "Parents are often concerned, 'If the provider gets sick, then what do I do?' In this case, you've got at least two caregivers, and typically a more reliable, regular substitute because of the size of that option, they can offer that person work on a more regular basis."
Child Development Group homes would also provide a career track for providers, Perreault said. This would be a new way for family child care providers who seek more responsibility and a new challenge to move through the system. "You could be a family care provider first and then later become a child development group home operator."
Air Force Efforts
More than 3,000 homes on 80 Air Force bases worldwide provide family child care for children aged 2 weeks to 14 years. In partnership with the Air Force Aide Society, family support program officials have initiated several programs to meet some of the special child care needs of Air Force families.
"The relief society has been very generous in supporting our child development programs because they see a direct link between child care availability and financial stability," said Beverly Schmalzried, chief of the Air Force Service Family Member Program at the Pentagon. "They know how important it is to families in being able to meet their financial obligations."
Retention of family child care providers is a major problem, Schmalzried said. "Unless providers have customers, they won't stay in business."
The Family Child Care for Volunteers Program is aimed at helping home-based family care providers develop a customer base. Free care is provided for children of family members who volunteer in on-base support activities such as the family support center, legal assistance office or Red Cross. The volunteers program is a good way of linking people who need child care and people who want to provide child care, she said.
"We pay them at a higher rate than we would normally pay for hourly care. In some cases, we guarantee them income, so they know that they're going to have income whether they have any volunteers show up or not." Last year, she said, the Air Force spent about $200,000 purchasing care in family child care homes for volunteers.
The Family Child Care for Permanent Change of Station Program is another Air Force effort. Parents E-5 and below are eligible for 20 hours of free care per child in a family child care home when they depart their duty station and another 20 hours when they arrive at a new base. Almost all Air Force bases participate in the PCS program, she said.
"This is an excellent way for our family child care providers to get new customers," Schmalzried said. Providers receive "a higher rate because they have hourly care children who can be more challenging, and we want them to save space for these children as opposed to full day children."
Another initiative aims to help parents obtain child care beyond the usual 50 hours most people purchase in a center, family child care home or off-base center. Two providers at each installation are being contracted to provide extended-duty child care, Schmalzried said.
"We've been testing this program at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., for about nine months. We're now testing it at an additional five bases. We'll be ready to roll this out to all bases by February 2001.
"At MacDill, where we were buying about 80 hours of care a week for extended-duty usage, only about half of it got used. But having it available is very important to families. One of the concepts we're testing here is the guaranteed income to the providers regardless of whether or not they have customers. We think that's important in looking at long-term retention of providers.
Air Force agencies such as family support centers and parent education classes are also authorized to offer on-site child care, Schmalzried said. Three conditions are required: Parents must remain in the building; care must be provided by volunteers; and no funds are exchanged between the parents and the agency.
"We also have some fitness centers that are trying some new concepts of having fitness and hourly care within the same room. The parents maintain responsibility for their own children," Schmalzried added.
Air Force parents who need a break from parenting can take advantage of the Give Parents a Break Program which offers free, center-based care once or twice a month in the evening or on weekends. Nearly 80 bases participate in what Schmalzried dubbed "a real parent pleaser" program.