Coast Guard active duty families will get the same priority for Defense Department child care as other military families, under a recent policy change directed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Esper has also delayed the implementation of the new child care priority system to Sept. 1, originally scheduled for June 1, citing “challenges our families and child care programs are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Because of the pandemic, many DoD child care programs have closed or are open only to essential and key personnel. As child care programs start to reopen, many are likely to accept fewer children at least at the beginning, because of safe social distancing required.

“I am directing that Coast Guard families be afforded the same priority as their DoD counterparts,” Esper wrote in the April 23 memo.

That change puts Coast Guard active duty families at the top of the priority list – on a par with their counterparts in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Esper’s Feb. 21 memo had moved Coast Guard families down close to the bottom of the list, separating them from other active duty families.

Esper’s February change in the priority policy is designed to give better access to child care for military families. There has long been a shortage of available child care for military families. “My commitment to ensuring priority access to child care for military members remains unchanged,” he stated in the April 23 memo.

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 and school-age care programs, which are also highly regulated.

Another notable difference in the February policy change is a new rule that allows those of lower priority to be bumped from DoD child care if a military family is expected to be on a wait list for 45 days beyond the time their military child needs care. Parents will be given 45-days notice before the child must leave.

For example, the children of a DoD civilian family could be bumped by a military family requesting care.

“It was really amazing to see how quickly the policy change came together,” said Nicole Russell, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. “We’re so happy to see Coast Guard families being treated as part of the military, because they are,” she said. Many Coast Guard families rely on DoD child care, as a lot of Coast Guard bases are smaller, and are more spread out, she added. There are only nine child development centers on Coast Guard bases, she said, which doesn’t meet the need.

The advocacy organization was happy to see the February change giving military families higher priority, and thus more access to military child care, she said. But following the announcement, “we got an overwhelming negative response from Coast Guard families,” she said. Families were concerned about being unable to use DoD child care, and having their children booted from centers by a family of higher priority.

In early March, before the pandemic-related closings, there were about 433 children of active-duty Coast Guard members enrolled in DoD child development centers, or about 0.7 percent of total enrollment, according to DoD. The Coast Guard reimburses DoD for the cost of providing child care spaces to Coast Guard children using DoD child development programs.

In late March, a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives sent a letter to Esper expressing their concerns about the potential effects the priority policy would have on active duty Coast Guard families.

They cited law that states “for purposes of military child development centers… the child of a member of the Coast Guard shall be considered the same as the child of a member of any of the other armed forces.”

Here’s the priority system, scheduled to start Sept. 1:

*Priority 1: Children of staff who are providing direct care in child development programs (Priority 1A); and children of service members (Priority 1B). “Service members” include DoD as well as Coast Guard members. Priority 1B service members are single or dual active duty members; single or dual Guard or Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training; and service members with a full-time working spouse. The children in Priority 1A and Priority 1B can’t be bumped from their child care to accommodate a child in any other category.

Priority 1C: Active duty members or Guard or Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training status, with a part-time working spouse or a spouse seeking employment.

Priority 1D: Active duty members or Guard or Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training status with a spouse enrolled full-time in a post-secondary institution.

Priority 2: DoD and Coast Guard civilians.

Priority 3: Space Available: active duty members with a non-working spouse; DoD/Coast Guard civilian employees with a spouse seeking employment; DoD/Coast Guard civilian employees with a spouse enrolled full-time in a post-secondary institution; Gold Star spouses; DoD contractors; and others who are eligible.

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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