Commentary

Into the unknown: Military families struggle with Family Care Plans

There is an old saying around the military, “If the Army wanted you to have a family, they’d have issued you one,” implying families are extraneous to the needs of the organization or worse, beyond the concern of the military.

In reality, the military relies on families formally and informally for a critical mission: caring for dependent family members when the military member reports for duty. As the COVID-19 pandemic upends everyday life, military families are confronted with a jarring new complexity: their support network has significantly unraveled. Military leaders must take immediate steps to understand how their families are handling dependent care, now and as this crisis persists. Failing to do so risks not only readiness today, but retention of service members in the future.

The military plans for family separation. Currently, there are approximately 84,000 service members who fall into the categories of dual-military with children and single parents across the active-duty force that require a traditional Family Care Plan (FCP). These FCPs formally codify a plan between the qualifying service member (dual-military, single parents, and those with qualifying adult dependents) the on-call caregivers, and the command, to care for dependents over the short and long term. FCPs are key to ensuring the reliability of the service member for duty. However, military families who require FCPs and their commands face new challenges posed by COVID-19.

A combination of school and daycare closures, and the DoD stop-travel order in place until June 30, 2020 — potentially separating service members and their dependents from those who were relied upon for emergency childcare — has rendered many FCPs unworkable. Even for families with a local caregiver, or where the command granted a travel exemption, the threat of COVID-19 to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions limits availability.

The added uncertainty of when children will be back in schools impacts the childcare responsibilities of military families and varies state-by-state. As state governments have the power of mandating school closures and their duration, military families in different states will have drastically different experiences and needs. Without any expectations for when standard FCPs will be usable, the process by which service members and their families will modify FCPs to reflect their current situation becomes increasingly stressful. This uncertainty must be addressed sooner, rather than later, to benefit both families and commands.

Commanders must work to create modified FCPs that actively reflect the variety of experiences across the country and the localized nature of community restrictions and closures. While limited options available to military families, maintaining an irrelevant or unattainable FCP not only tempts a readiness crisis, it ignores the need for realistic discussion.

Modified FCPs should serve as open conversations with unit leadership that sets expectations for service members and commanders. Plans should reflect the reality of teleworking with children at home and limited caregivers available. Unit commanders are the proper authority to ensure families have the resources they need, adequate plans are made, and undue demands are not placed on the service member. Senior Mission Commanders (SMC) should ensure Inspector Generals and Staff Judge Advocates are actively monitoring and advising subordinate commanders who hold decision-making authority on FCPs, as failing to maintain an adequate plan is a serious infraction which can result in the separation of a service member.

During this pandemic, caution must be taken to ensure the service member is afforded every opportunity to create a flexible FCP and the unit commanders have taken the extreme circumstances into account. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on many well-made plans, routine and emergency, and a worldwide pandemic beyond anyone’s control should be taken into consideration before career-changing decisions are made.

Availability of military childcare becomes a key factor as this crisis prolongs. While most military daycare centers have closed to practice social distancing, some remain open to serve the children of essential workers. Prioritizing access to emergency childcare to dual-military and single parents should be considered now, and as facilities begin to reopen incrementally.

DoD’s underinvestment in on-base daycare options exacerbates the caregiving problem. DoD-run daycare centers need a new set of rules which should take FCPs into account in this public health crisis. Prior to the pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had already begun a prioritization process for available daycare slots — a move seeming even more prescient in light of COVID-19 related closures and readiness concerns. As daycares reopen, all locations should consider enacting the new guidelines, currently planned for June 1, 2020, and reorganize daycare spaces prioritizing children of emergency essential personnel and those with FCP considerations.

One day, the COVID-19 pandemic will be over and the travel restrictions, school closures, and extended family health considerations lifted. When that occurs, how will the FCP standards change? We must assume public health emergencies will continue to occur. DoD shouldn’t be caught without contingency plans developed with hindsight from this experience. To start, FCPs should be viewed as more than a set of signatures on a piece of paper only thought of upon their failure. These plans will only be resilient if they are flexible, demanding more from both the service member and the command.

One of the largest challenges of the COVID-19 era is the uncertainty to when normal life resumes. While future situations are unlikely to be exact replicas of the current moment, elements of the restrictions and risks should inform future policymaking. By definition, unusual circumstances that turn lives upside down are why the military requires Family Care Plans in the first place.

Col. Sarah Albrycht is a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Nathalie Grogan is a research assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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