By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON -- In the old days, the crusty veteran sergeant might growl at the young recruit longing for his hometown sweetie, "If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a wife, he would have issued you one!"
Them days are over, Sarge.
Uncle Sam may not issue wives -- or husbands for that matter -- but today, most young service members not only have spouses, they also have children. Active duty families include about 500,000 children aged newborn to five years, 430,000 aged 6 to 11, and 293,000 aged 12 to 18.
The number of military families, active-duty mothers and single parents has grown with the advent of the all-volunteer force. About half of today's military families have one or more children below school age. In 1998, more than 13,000 military personnel age 21 or younger became parents for the first time.
Until the 1980s, military child care was underfunded and loosely organized, according to DoD family policy officials. Existing regulations were inconsistently applied, there were no certification systems and little or no oversight.
In the mid-1980s, amid a national wave of child abuse scandals, several cases of abuse at military facilities came to light that led to congressional interest. In 1989, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act, authorizing funding for child development programs.
The legislation set fees for child care centers based on family income and government matches, and it 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. Hot lines were set up to report violations.
In the same year, DoD's inspector general made 53 recommendations to improve military child care. As a result of the new legislation and DoD's internal assessment, the Military Child Development System was reborn. Over the course of the following decade, what was once considered the "ghetto of American child care" became a model for the nation, according to Linda K. Smith, director of the Pentagon's Office of Family Policy.
In 1998, the White House recognized the Military Child Development System as the nation's standard-bearer. Since then, at the behest of no less than President Clinton, government-sponsored and private child care providers have turned to Smith and her staff for guidance. DoD child care experts set up an Internet Web site at http://dticaw.dtic.mil/milchild and national clearing house at 1-888-237-3040 to share resources, information and support.
While DoD standards technically fall only in the middle range of state standards, Smith said, enforcement makes the difference. "We now are known for quality. You're not going to see a lot of difference whether you go to a center at Fort Meade, Md., or Andrews Air Force Base, Md., or Naval District Washington, D.C.," she said. "You're going to see good programs."
The Military Child Development System has three components: child development centers, in-home family care providers and school-age care programs. All caregivers must meet rigid training, health and safety standards and are subject to unannounced inspections. Caregivers' employment, wages and advancement are tied to training, education and performance. An 'up or out' policy is designed to create child care professionals. Higher wages are offered to reduce turnover.
Child development centers provide care for children 6 weeks to 12 years of age. Most operate between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Nearly 95 percent of the military's centers are accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a division of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Smith said all DoD centers aim to be fully accredited by the end of 2000.
Family child care programs are in-home care provided by certified caregivers living in government-owned or leased housing. More than 9,900 licensed and trained Family Child Care providers offer daily, night and weekend care.
School-age care programs are offered for children ages 6 to 12 before and after school, and during holidays and summer vacations. DoD policies encourage the use of youth centers and other facilities for these programs rather than using child development centers. Military officials have also set up partnerships with local elementary schools to operate school-age care programs.
"Our success is due to the fact that we are a system with several components rather than an individual program," Smith said. "The centers, the family child care homes, the school-age program, all fall under one umbrella managed at a central location. Parents come in and if we don't have space in a center, we can refer them to a family child care home or an off-base program."
Civilian communities do not offer a centralized system, Smith said. "If you go out in Arlington County, Va., for example, you're going to have to go to every child care center and see if they have a space," she explained. "If they don't, then it's up to you to try to find a family child care home. You're going to have to find a list and then go to individual homes."
The Army meets 60 percent of its need for 111,300 spaces. The Navy meets 54 percent of its need for about 74,200 spaces and plans to reach 65 percent by 2003. The Air Force meets 56 percent of its need for 87,700 spaces and plans to reach 65 percent by 2002. The Marine Corps now meets 58 percent of its need for 24,300 spaces and plans to reach 65 percent by 2003.
Some locations, Smith said, meet 100 percent of their needs. At others, such as San Diego, Calif., and Norfolk, Va., where there are large concentrations of service members, providing space for all those seeking child care is very difficult, she said.
"What we need now is more -- more spaces in all of the program areas. We need more child care centers. We need more homes and we need more school-age programs. We just need more," Smith said.
National recognition for offering affordable quality child care has increased the demand for space, she noted. "When you're good, people want in," she said. "People don't want to go downtown and take their chances somewhere that may or may not be regulated or inspected. There's quality assurance in the military program that you don't have outside the gate."
"We put a real push on establishing partnerships with public schools to use school space for after-school care, thereby freeing up space at child development centers," Smith said. "In areas like Norfolk, Va., and Tacoma, Wash., we make up 90 percent of the population in some of the schools. The Navy has set up several successful partnerships in the Seattle-Bremerton, Wash., area where they run after-school programs in the public schools."
Another initiative involves working with civilian communities to license military spouses living off base. "If you're a military family child care provider living in government housing in Germany, for example, we lose you as a provider if you move to Norfolk and live off-base," Smith explained. "We've trained you. We've invested a lot of money in you, but now that you don't live in our housing, we can't use you as a resource for child care."
Military officials are working with state and county officials so that the local communities will license these child care providers based on DoD certification. Then, DoD can refer parents to them. "Moving off the installation to family child care in off-base homes is one of the biggest areas we're pushing," Smith said.
At military child care centers, the fee is based on family income. Low-income families, for example, pay $40 to $50 per week per child. This is not the case for in-home family care providers, who operate as private contractors and set their own fees. "So you could pay $80 a week in a family child care home, as opposed to $40 in a military child development center," Smith said. In many cases, Navy, Marine Corps and Army installations make up the difference with subsidies. The use of subsidies, in fact, is expanding in all services except the Air Force, which doesn't authorize them.
In some cases, military parents work shifts so they can take turns caring for their children, she said. This type of arrangement is also hard on family life since the family spends little time together. Even while at home in charge of children, shift workers need to sleep. This arrangement falls apart, however, when one parent is deployed.
For the foreseeable future, finding quality, affordable child care will remain a challenge for military families, just as it is for civilians, Smith concluded. But, she added, DoD officials are working to meet the need and will continue exploring new ways to care for the military's own of all ages.
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