Two senators have introduced a proposal aimed at making more child care available to military families, primarily by seeking out more spaces in the civilian community.

The proposal would also require the services to set the hours of operation of military child development centers based on the needs of military parents in individual locations. 

"This bipartisan bill would help boost our military's readiness and retention by making sure our military families have access to child care that actually meets their needs," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, in a statement. She and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced the bill Monday.  

"Concerns about child care is the No. 1 issue facing our military families who are looking to our government to address their daily worries," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families, adding that she is appreciative that the senators have heard that message and are trying to take action.

The proposed legislation is dubbed the "Availability of Child Care for Every Servicemember and Spouse Act" or ACCESS Act.

KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS

The bill would require service officials to set hours of operation at military child care centers that meet the needs of parents who use them. That means considering mission requirements of units at that location, unpredictability of work schedules, the potential for frequent and prolonged absences, the extent to which spouses are employed or pursuing education, geographic separation of service members from their extended family, and other pertinent issues.

This expands upon the Defense Department’s Force of the Future initiative that increased the hours of operation to 14 hours a day at child development centers, where needed.

That initiative, being gradually implemented, gives parents more flexibility by adding hours at the beginning or end of the day or both; children are limited to 12 hours per day in a center except under special circumstances.

ON-SITE ADVOCATES

The bill would establish child care coordinators at military installations, to be advocates for military families on child care matters both on and off the installation. This was a recommendation from the Bipartisan Policy Center in March, in their report about making the military personnel system more flexible.

While there are currently some child care referral and resource offices, they aren't on every base, said Roth-Douquet, who is also  co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center's task force on defense personnel.

"And they would be more of advocates" for parents, she said. While  MilitaryChildCare.com is a good resource for connecting parents with child care, she said, a coordinator also could work with the civilian community to seek out more child care spaces. 

These coordinators would track vacancies in child care facilities and "seek to obtain favorable prices" for child care for military children, according to the proposal. While military parents pay fees for child care through the military, based on the total family income, taxpayers also subsidize part of the cost of child care.


The services have  contracts with the nonprofit Child Care Aware to help military families find quality child care in the civilian community, and to manage the child care fee assistance programs, subsidizing some of the cost for eligible families who don't have access to military child care. The proposed on-base child care coordinators could perhaps also seek out more spaces that could be certified under the services' child care fee assistance programs, Roth-Douquet said.. 

OFF-POST CARE

The bipartisan bill also would establish pilot programs where installation officials work with civilian child care providers to reserve some or all of their child care spaces for military children. Each service branch would carry out pilot programs at a  minimum of four military installations. 

"Because we will never have enough child care on the installations, let's make sure families have access to high-quality, affordable care off the installation," said Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association. "Our issue is not the quality of care in military child development centers. It's that demand is so much greater than supply."

For military families, the challenge of finding high-quality child care is particularly acute because of frequent moves, long waiting lists at military child development centers, demanding schedules and the prolonged absence of one or more military parents, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of NMFA. 

"This legislation is an important first step in making sure that military families have access to high quality, affordable child care that meets their needs," she said.  

Senior reporter Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. Email her at kjowers@militarytimes.com.