Government Unites to Improve Child, Youth Programs
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2011 The government’s new military family support effort will have a resounding impact on resources and programs for military children and youth in the months and years ahead, a Defense Department official said.
“It is earth-shattering,” Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s office of family policy and children and youth, said of the new initiative. “Never before have we had the full force of the federal government behind taking care of families.”
Last week, President Barack Obama unveiled a new, whole-of-government approach to military family support, with agencies uniting to create new resources and support programs for military families worldwide. The government has made 50 commitments to improving families’ quality of life, which are outlined in a White House report, “Strengthening Our Military Families: Meeting America’s Commitment.”
Although the nation’s top leaders rolled out the report, the government relied heavily on family members’ input to identify challenges and develop possible solutions, Thompson noted. Officials talked to leaders and service members, spouses and caregivers in a number of venues, including a national leadership summit, family readiness conference, listening sessions and a number of surveys. The White House also brought in spouses to discuss their top issues.
As a result of feedback, about half of the report is devoted to the well-being of military children and youth, with one section devoted to increasing child care availability and quality, and another dedicated to ensuring excellence in military children’s education and development. The report outlines specific programs and initiatives agencies plan to work on together to better meet families’ needs.
“We recognize we need partners, not just from the federal government, but nonprofits,” Thompson said. “We’ve learned over these years of war how important those partnerships are, to really leverage the programming and the expertise and to augment what we’re doing in the DOD.”
The Defense Department has a “wonderful social-support system” already in place, but will now have the avenues to expand and grow its efforts to the benefit of military children, Thompson said. “We weren’t sure what doors to knock on before,” she said. “But now we have carte blanche to experts in the field and how to connect to those state resources.”
Thompson highlighted several joint efforts under way that already are having a positive impact on child care and children’s well-being.
She cited a new liaison program as one example. DOD officials are working with the National Association of Childcare Resource and Referral Agencies to create new child care liaison positions in 13 states, she said. The states were chosen based on military population, deployment impact, the strength of the state’s quality rating improvement system and level of support from joint family support assistance teams.
The liaisons will partner with the defense state liaison office to improve the level of licensing standards throughout the state and to find providers willing to participate in quality improvements through technical assistance and training, Thompson explained. They’ll also sit on the state’s Early Childhood Council, she added.
The goal is to create more community-based child care spaces as well as to improve the child care quality for military parents who don’t have access to or aren’t located near a military installation, Thompson explained. As an added bonus, by improving the care for military children, the other children in the program benefit as well.
“We’re very excited about this,” she said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to really make a difference, not just for military children, but for all children.”
DOD officials also will look to other agencies, including the Health and Human Services Department and the Administration for Children and Families, to tap into state resources, and to the land-grant university and cooperative extension systems for technical assistance in training child care providers.
Officials also are working to increase the availability of on-base child care with new and expanded facilities, Thompson said. Construction projects in 2009 and 2010 yielded nearly 8,000 child care spaces. And an estimated five projects are in the works for 2012, she said.
Along with availability, the Defense Department is focused on flexibility of care, she said. To that end, the Navy and Army have created child development facilities that offer round-the-clock care for service members who may need support for night or early shifts. And for those in need of drop-in or respite care, DOD subsidizes 16 hours of care per child per month for families with a deployed loved one.
Additionally, some YMCAs offer respite care, Thompson said, adding there’s a full list of participating centers available on the Military OneSource website.
Thompson also highlighted DOD’s longstanding partnership with the Agriculture Department’s 4-H group, which is projected to expand in the coming months, according to the White House report. The 4-H is the youth development program of the nation’s cooperative extension system.
Each service, Thompson explained, has agreements with 4-H to provide activities and programming to youth centers.
“What we’re trying to do is to harness the capacity of the cooperative extension and the land-grant university system to really have some initiatives that will … highlight what is effective and tap into those resources that are in every county,” she said, citing nutrition, financial readiness and gardening as just a few of the available programs.
“The land-grant university system has a myriad of support mechanisms that support the citizens of their state,” Thompson said. “We really want to tap into what they can provide at the local level for military members and their families.”
Thompson said she’s also excited about a joint DOD and land-grant university initiative to map where all military children live. Officials can use that information to focus initiatives and programs, she said, particularly for children of the Guard and Reserve. “We want to make sure we can find them and tap into their needs,” she said.
Many of these projects will bear fruit in the long term. For now, Thompson said, DOD is focused on developing a communications plan, with a heavy emphasis on social media, to get the word out about new programs and resources as they roll out. And as time passes, she added, agencies will be held accountable for their progress. All are required to report back to the White House periodically.
Although the effort is in its early stages, Thompson said, she’s already encouraged by the light that’s been cast on military families.
“It’s gratifying to see the commitment and the concern and the recognition of the sacrifices that military families make from people who are not affiliated with the DOD,” she said. “Everybody really stepped up to the plate to say, ‘This is important for me as an American. This is important for me in my leadership role in my federal agency. This is the right thing to do.’”