A pilot program to help military families pay for child care in their homes will kick off in July, according to defense officials.
The new initiative will be offered in five regions that have a high demand for child care and the longest wait lists: the National Capital Region; Hawaii; San Diego; Norfolk; and San Antonio. The five-year program was authorized by Congress to test a new method tor responding to families’ child care needs.
Child Care Aware of America, the third-party administrator, on July 6 will start contacting parents who have requested in-home care through MilitaryChildCare.com with offers to participate in the pilot, as well as information about how to enroll, according to DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence.
The “In-Home Child Care Fee Assistance Pilot” will operate similarly to the long-running child care fee assistance program for community-based care, which is aimed at service members who don’t have access to care at a military installation. The difference is, it will help pay for care in the child’s home.
The fiscal 2022 DoD budget request includes $5 million for the pilot program. The amount of fee assistance provided for families will vary, based on the total family income and the in-home child care provider’s rate.
Those who are currently on the MilitaryChildCare.com wait list for child care in those five regions are eligible to participate, and families who aren’t yet on the wait list can create an account and request the in-home care. Families can specifically request the in-home child care fee assistance, without being on the wait list for other care.
For years, military families, advocates and lawmakers have expressed concern about the shortage of affordable child care for military families. While child care is available on military bases, there isn’t enough of it in many areas.
The program will help subsidize full-time care in the child’s home for a minimum of 30 hours to a maximum of 60 hours each week. The child care won’t be limited to Monday through Friday, or time of day; which will give families more flexibility to get child care for rotating shifts, weekend work or other needs. Those eligible are single or dual active duty troops, including Guard and reserve members on active duty, and those with a full-time working spouse or spouse enrolled full-time in postsecondary education.
Child Care Aware will oversee the program to verify service member and child care provider eligibility, and provide the fee assistance payments to the approved providers. They will also ensure the providers successfully complete and maintain current background check requirements. Families must find their own child care provider. Those providers must be a U.S. citizen; at least 18 years old; have a least a high school diploma or equivalent; read, speak and write English; and complete 32 hours of training, including CPR and first aid, child abuse prevention, safe sleep and care for children with special needs, if needed, according to the web page about the pilot.
This pilot program “is a step in the right direction,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. It recognizes the unique child care needs of military families, she said, especially for single parents and dual military couples.
The competition for child care slots has gotten more intense, and military families are competing with even more families in the civilian community. “Slots are really scarce right now, not just for the military community but for the civilian community as well,” Hruska said. “They were before the pandemic, but the pandemic has amplified it many times over.”
Here’s what’s in the fiscal 2022 budget request for child care
Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the lack of available child care for military families, and the services’ lack of requests in the past for funds to build child development centers.
DoD’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes a request for one child development center — a $20 million, 200-space center at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, to replace the current center that’s in poor condition and has an inadequate, 140-child capacity. There are some CDCs in the pipeline for construction, funded in previous years, such as Aliamanu Military Reservation and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; and Naval Base Kitsap, Washington. The services say they are working on plans for more child care centers in future budget requests.
But just as DoD is expanding care options with the in-home child care program, the services have put more money into their long-running fee assistance program for community-based care for military families. DoD is also evaluating expansion of that program to allow more civilian providers to qualify.
The fiscal 2022 budget request includes an increase of about $16 million to fund roughly 2,000 more spaces in the services’ community-based child care fee assistance programs, primarily in the Army and Navy. The Navy’s request, for example, is $38.1 million, more than twice as much as the fee assistance they provided to families in fiscal 2020, continuing a trend over the past two years. Across the services, the requests for their fee assistance programs total about $148 million. According to the Defense Department, the programs served about 36,000 military children in fiscal 2019.
Air Force: The department has increased its request for fee assistance by $2.7 million, to $21.8 million for fiscal 2022, compared to this year. But it’s increased by $5 million since fiscal 2020. The fiscal 2022 request will maintain the level of fee assistance now provided in the program.
“To date, no military family has been denied Air Force fee assistance for a lack of available funding, and the Department of the Air Force is committed to sustaining this track record through [fiscal 2022],” according to the Air Force response to Military Times’ questions.
Army: Officials haven’t requested funding for any new child development centers for fiscal 2022, but have included two construction projects and two renovation projects in their list of unfunded requirements. New child development centers are slated for Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The renovations are planned for centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The Army has requested $82.7 million for child care fee assistance, an 11 percent increase over the $74.5 million budgeted this year; and 17 percent more than the $70.6 million in fiscal 2020.
Marine Corps: The service is seeking $5 million for child care fee assistance for Marines unable to access child care on base, the same as this year. Officials spent $3 million on the program in fiscal 2020.
The Marine Corps and Navy had waiting lists for this child care fee assistance program because of limited funding, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Navy: The sea service is asking for $38.1 million for child care fee assistance funding in fiscal 2022, officials said. That’s an increase of of 28 percent — $8.3 million — over the $29.8 million requested for this year, and twice as much as the $19 million requested in fiscal 2020. The primary goal for the extra money is to create 400 new fee assistance spaces and 300 new Exceptional Family Member Program spaces, officials said.
This article was updated with information from DoD about the number of children in the community-based fee assistance program.
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.