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DoD Takes Holistic Approach to Family Services

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 1999 – Sometimes, one person's troubles can trigger a whole lot of change. That's what happened when family policy officials here learned of one service member's plight.

The young E-5, his wife and three small children lived in a run- down trailer 20 miles from base in southern Virginia. He went to work on base each day, leaving Mom and the kids on their own. She wanted to work, but she couldn't find a job. Even if she could have, the family could not afford child care. They owed creditors more than $60,000.

By the time installation family service officials learned about the situation, the family's only recourse was to declare bankruptcy.

Their dilemma and other cases like it sparked DoD to create a new "holistic" approach that views and treats the needs of service families as a whole. "Charting a Course for Change," a strategic plan for 1998 to 2004 recently released by DoD's Office of Family Policy, outlines the concept. Family policy officials are briefing the services on plan goals.

"We discovered family service specialists aren't always talking to each other," said Linda K. Smith, family policy office director. Families in trouble often need support in several areas at the same time, she said, so that means "spouse employment program people need to work with child care people or financial assistance people to come up with an overall plan to help stabilize a family."

DoD's new approach coordinates family programs and services and should improve continuity and cost effectiveness, Smith said. "We really need to bring down the walls between family programs and look more comprehensively at people and complex issues," she said. The plan calls for consolidating current programs into three categories: family well-being, economic well-being, and children and youth.

Family well-being links family advocacy, parent support, and mobility/deployment and crisis assistance programs. DoD expects this network of related programs to help families develop the skills and knowledge needed to meet the demands of military life.

Economic well-being includes relocation, transition, financial management and spouse employment services. With about 235,000 separations and 750,000 moves in DoD every year, family policy officials said, the economic stability of military families is challenged frequently. DoD intends to provide state-of-the-art tools, information and assistance so families are better able to manage financial responsibilities.

Child development, youth services and special needs programs fall under the children and youth category. Family policy officials said these programs significantly impact military readiness and retention. The goal is to provide a continuum of programs that focus on the needs of children and youth of all ages.

Programs are aimed at helping DoD families during the full military life cycle -- recruitment, training, deployments and mobilizations, retention and separation. Policies governing these programs emphasize taking a holistic approach, providing commander flexibility and determining measurable results.

Commanders' flexibility in supporting family programs was an area of concern addressed by policy officials preparing the new strategy, Smith said. "Commanders were upset because they felt they were hamstrung by regulations and requirements that they might not need," she explained.

"We had a commander at one base who had a family advocacy requirement to have certain people on a committee -- teachers, chaplains, financial assistance experts," she explained. "He didn't have all those people, so in order to comply with the requirement, he was actually flying people in from other bases to be on the committee. He felt that if he didn't have the right people, he was out of compliance with the regulation and he was legally vulnerable."

Smith said DoD wants to provide a structure that allows commanders to set their own priorities yet requires accountibility. Faced with doing more with less, commanders want more independence in managing funds so they can better target resources to local family needs, she said.

Family programs must be targeted to what people actually need, Smith stressed. One community, for instance, was off target when it offered relocation seminars exclusively for senior officers' wives, she said.

"They've moved many times," she said. "They don't need help as much as those younger families who have never moved and have more limited resources. The people who need help are the E-4 spouses who've never been out of Biloxi, Miss., and now find themselves over in Germany. In this case, we lost sight of the program goals and why they were established. We need to determine who needs help the most, find those people, and get them the help they need."

Moving away from facility-based programs and moving toward more outreach programs is another thrust of the new approach, Smith noted. "We want to provide outreach in the true sense -- where we go out and find people like that family 20 miles away from base who are in trouble, as opposed to putting a sign on a door saying, 'Come here, if you need help.' We're looking at ways to get out information other than coming into an office somewhere."

The family policy office is making use of today's technology, putting information on the World Wide Web. Officials have developed a Military Assistance Program home page and Web sites on DoD's child development system, a relocation program called Military Teens on the Move, and an outplacement referral service. CD-ROM training programs are available for educators on the Family Advocacy Program and for junior service members and families on personal financial management.

Along with consolidating programs and giving commanders more flexibility, the family policy plan also establishes ways of measuring whether or not a program works, Smith said.

"Human resource programs and family issues are not easy to quantify," she said. "How do you know you're successful? We are developing a performance plan requiring certain 'outcomes' so we'll be able to determine if we've made a difference."

Overall, the new approach features a fundamental change to how the department looks at providing family services. In the past, the military philosophy was to take care of its own. Programs were designed to take care of service members' needs through a variety of resources, but they did not encourage service members to help themselves. The new approach aims to promote self- reliance and independence by helping service and family members learn to take care of themselves.

FACTS

Based on 1997 figures, the Military Family Resource Center reports the following facts about military families:

  • Nearly 60 percent of service members are married. Nearly 50 percent have children and 7 percent are single parents.
  • On average, military families move every three years.
  • About 50 percent of military families live off base.
  • The average military family has two children.
  • The more than 670,000 service members have 1.3 million children, 66 percent below age 14.
  • Junior enlisted make up 44.5 percent of the military. About 77 percent of the children in junior enlisted families are younger than 6.
  • Nearly 80 percent of military members are younger than 35.
  • The majority of military spouses are below age 35, including about 40 percent between the ages of 26 and 34; and 19 percent between the ages of 22 and 25.
  • About 65 percent of military spouses have jobs.
  • In 1997, about 6 percent of service members were married to other service members. They have nearly 36,000 children.
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