Military families can search for military child care availability and sign up for waiting lists online through a new Defense Department program that's gradually being rolled out worldwide.

DoD officials have launched at 13 installations beyond the five previous pilot locations. It's expected to be operational worldwide by September 2016, with more installations coming online each quarter, officials said.

It will provide a central portal to streamline the process for parents to get information about and arrange for military child care at their next duty station, their current one or a potential future duty station. They can monitor the status of their request for child care while they wait for notification of an available space.

About 200,000 military children, ages 6 weeks to 12 years, receive full-day care, part-day care, hourly care, part-day preschool and before- and after-school care in DoD programs at more than 300 locations worldwide, according to defense officials.

The initial 13 installations in the new rollout are Navy bases, located in five states. The program is available to families of all service branches, but the decisions on these first sites were based on a variety of factors, such as whether the installations were ready to transition to the new system, said DoD spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.

The five locations that have been piloting the program are: Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; Naval Air Station Key West, Florida; Naval Support Activity, Bahrain; and the metropolitan San Diego area.

The site enables parents to visit one location for their child care needs, rather than contacting the child care program offices of each installation. Parents can view information on every child development center and family child care home and see the current anticipated placement time estimates, said Greg Young, Navy child and youth program director. The Navy is the executive agent for the program for all the services.

Parents also may view maps to see how far a child care provider is from their work or home.

Officials planned the phased-in approach to ensure a smooth transition, said Barbara Thompson, director of DoD's office of family policy/children and youth. "Great care has been taken to make sure it's done right and there are no glitches," she said

Family advocates were pleased with the news of the rollout. "I've been following the pilot program for over a year and think it's great that this service will now be available to more military families," said Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. "It has the potential to be a huge help to families as they search for child care, especially those families who are planning a PCS move."

An Air Force wife who is a family child care provider at one of the pilot installations said the new system takes more of her time than the previous system, but "it's a good idea and really organized." She recalls one parent who contacted her previously and had to make several phone calls from England. "In that situation, [] would have been much easier for her," she said.

When installations transition to the new website, they will no longer maintain a local waiting list. "It's one gateway for all DoD and our programs will use it for their own authoritative waiting list," Young said.

Young said parents seeking information online about an installation that's not yet participating in will be referred to the customer service number, where representatives will help the parents get information.

The Navy has seen faster child care placement as a result of the program at the pilot sites, Young said. One of the benefits from the Navy's perspective, he said, is that child care program officials can inform families about more options for child care.

For example, Navy families in Hawaii may have requested child care only at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, although they live closer to Schofield Barracks, because they didn't realize they were eligible for child care at an Army post. Pearl Harbor officials can notify the family about Schofield, and ask if they want to be placed on that waiting list.

To be placed on a waiting list, parents create an account and sign up, and can sign up for multiple installations. When space becomes available, parents are notified by email, as well as by a follow-up phone call, Young said. The system also requires parents to electronically update their accounts every 30 days to ensure they want to remain on waiting lists.

If offered a space at one program, parents can accept while remaining on other waiting lists, if they'd prefer another child care program — for example, one closer to their work. If parents turn down a space, it affects only that program; they can remain on other lists. If they later decide they do want a space at that center, they can sign up again, but they lose their place in line.

In addition to the five pilot sites, the new 13 Navy sites are:

California: Naval Air Facility El Centro; Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake; Naval Air Station Lemoore; Naval Support Activity Monterey; Naval Base Ventura County.

Nevada: Naval Air Station Fallon.

Texas: Naval Air Station Joint Readiness Base Fort Worth; Naval Air Station Kingsville; Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.

Louisiana: Naval Air Station Joint Readiness Base New Orleans.

Washington: Naval Station Everett; Naval Base Kitsap; Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

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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