Some Defense Department civilians, active-duty Coast Guard members and others are scrambling to find other child care amidst their uncertainty about their children’s future in military child care.

Under a new policy which takes effect June 1, children of DoD civilians, active-duty Coast Guard and others could be bumped from DoD child care if a military family is expected to be on a wait list for 45 days beyond the time the military child needs care. Parents will be given 45-days notice before the child must leave.

The policy, signed Feb. 21 by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, gives priority to military children and children of child care employees providing direct care, and is designed to help alleviate some of the problems military families have in getting child care.

But since the policy was announced, some parents who have moved down on the priority list say it’s disruptive to families, and contend their children should be grandfathered to stay in their child care.

There are currently more than 9,600 DoD civilian children in DoD child development centers, according to DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence. They make up about 16 percent of the total enrolled children.

Service officials are still developing further guidance for how they will carry out the new policy, such as what criteria will determine which children would be bumped first.

The previous policy generally gave the same priority to DoD civilian employees as military members, depending on family circumstances. The new policy moves military children up on the waiting list, but also allows them to bump other children lower on the priority list, who are already in the child care program. Military family advocates have applauded the move, noting that while DoD civilians are important to the mission, they don’t move nearly as frequently as active duty military families do, and that it’s a readiness issue for military families.

“The DoD’s system of child care was established to assist service members as they face the unique challenges associated with the demands of military service. Over time, child care access expanded to serve the total force, but we must not lose sight of the service member and mission requirements,” wrote Esper, in his memorandum. He has stated publicly that taking care of service members and their families is a personal focus.

For years, military leaders have said the common concern they hear when visiting service members is the lack of available and affordable child care. It’s a national concern that’s not limited to the military.

Military child development centers are known nationally for their quality, and parents’ child care fees are subsidized by taxpayer dollars to make the care more affordable for military families. The DoD child development programs also include certified family child care homes, which are also highly regulated.

“It seems incredibly shortsighted that this policy wouldn’t grandfather in those who are already enrolled, to prevent such short-notice dismissals and undue stress on children and their working parents,” said Ashleigh Byrnes, whose two children are enrolled in DoD child care in the Washington, D.C., area, under her husband’s sponsorship as a DoD civilian. The children will be 2 and 4 in April.

According to DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence, “Grandfathering was considered and it was determined that this would not meet the intent of the policy change to ensure military families receive the highest priority for care.”

“I’m a Marine Corps veteran. I’ve been on the other side,” Byrnes said. “I’m OK with them rearranging the tiers [of priority],” she said, but the change doesn’t give parents enough time to find other child care in areas like Washington, where there is a shortage. “Forty-five days to find child care here is a joke,” she said. “You can’t roll those dice,” she said. So she and her husband have been contacting pre-schools to find other care. So far, all are full, she said, so once again, they are on wait lists.

The policy change will be clearly disruptive to these parents and their young children, she said, “many of whom have already established relationships with their teachers and caregivers.”

They’ve been unable to get any information about the procedures for displacing children — such as which child would be displaced first if there are multiple children of DoD civilians, for example, in the event a military child needs care. “It’s almost like the ‘Hunger Games.’ Which of our kids will be sacrificed first?” Byrnes said.

The military services are working on guidance that will answer those questions about the criteria and process used for determining which child would be displaced first, according to Lawrence, the DoD spokeswoman.

These questions affect all others who could be displaced, including active-duty Coast Guard families, who are below DoD civilians on the priority list; the services are developing guidance for these scenarios, too.

One Coast Guard couple in the Washington area said they have “dire concerns” about the ability of their two children to remain in their DoD child development center after the policy goes into effect. Being in the lowest priority tier “puts us at a very likely risk of being booted from our CDC at any point with only 45 days’ notice….

“After publicly having our backs when Coast Guard families went without pay during last year’s shutdown, it is disheartening to see the DoD implement a policy that seeks to improve the quality of its service members lives at the expense of their brothers and sisters in arms within the Coast Guard,” the husband said.

There are currently about 433 children of active-duty Coast Guard members enrolled in DoD child development centers, Lawrence said, or about 0.7 percent of total enrollment. The Coast Guard reimburses DoD for the cost of providing child care spaces to Coast Guard children using DoD child development programs, Lawrence said.

The policy change was made to ensure that DoD military members receive the highest priority for enrollment in the child development programs, Lawrence said.

“Our DoD civilians and Coast Guard counterparts in the Department of Homeland Security are an important part of our mission. With limited child care capacity, our focus must be on our military families first,” she said.

“DoD continues to explore additional ways to expand our child care capacity.”

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.

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