A new policy “prioritizing military kids” in child development centers on installations is expected to be issued soon by defense officials, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Esper didn’t elaborate on the new policy, which he mentioned during remarks to troops and families Thursday at U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. This is part of his emphasis on addressing issues related to spouse employment and child care in military families, he said.
“This is a family business,” he said, regardless of which branch of service, and noted that families are an important part of sustaining the service member’s career, whether it’s three years or 20 years.
“Child care is a national crisis. It’s difficult to find quality, affordable child care outside the gate,” said Patty Barron, director of family readiness for the Association of the U.S. Army. “Therefore, it’s very encouraging we’re making eligibility of military children a high priority.”
For years, military leaders have said the common thread they hear when visiting service members is the lack of available and affordable child care. Child development centers are known nationally for their quality, and parents’ fees are subsidized by taxpayer dollars to make the care more affordable for military families.
Among those eligible currently for the child development programs are DoD civilian employees, with the same priority as military members, depending on the family circumstances.
In addition to child development centers, DoD child development programs include certified family child care homes, which are also highly regulated. In a number of locations, the wait for on-base child care is many months, a delay especially difficult for military families on the move.
The services also offer programs for fee assistance for child care in the civilian community in cases where military child care is not available, by approved providers. There are currently wait lists for Navy and Marine Corps families who want to receive this fee assistance.
Navy and Army civilian families are also eligible for the off-base fee assistance programs.
When Esper was Secretary of the Army, he issued a policy discontinuing Army child care fee assistance for most Army civilians, as part of his effort to address child care shortages for Army active duty families, but that policy was later rescinded as officials pulled back to study the issue further.
According to current Defense Department policy, the priorities for child care in the child development programs, for children from birth through age 12 are:
Priority 1. Children of combat-related wounded warriors, child development program direct care staff, single or dual active duty military members, single or dual DoD civilian employees paid from both taxpayer and non-taxpayer funds (such as the military exchanges and morale, welfare, and recreation programs), and surviving spouses of military members who died from a combat-related incident, and those acting as caregivers on behalf of those in this category. With the exception of combat-related wounded warriors, all eligible parents or caregivers residing with the child are employed outside the home.
Priority 2. Active duty military service members, DoD civilian employees, surviving spouses of military members who died from a combat-related incident, and caregivers of this eligible group, where a non-working spouse, or in the case of a DoD civilian with a same-sex domestic partner, is actively seeking employment.
Priority 3. Active duty military service members, DoD civilian employees, surviving spouses of military members who died from a combat-related incident, and caregivers, where a non-working spouse, or in the case of a DoD civilian employee with a same-sex domestic partner, is enrolled in an accredited post-secondary institution.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.