VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — In the wee hours of the morning, Master-at-Arms 1st Class Imani Solomon pulls on her Navy uniform, loads her 5-year-old son Isaiah’s stuffed backpack into the car, and heads back upstairs to gather her still-sleeping son.

The sky is still dark as she gently buckles Isaiah into the car. Most days, it’s around 3 a.m. when they arrive at the 24-hour child development center here at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, where Isaiah will grab a few more hours of sleep while his mother heads in to work.

After they’re let inside, Solomon tucks Isaiah into his designated bed alongside his stuffed toy and unpacks his clothes for the day into a nearby cubby.

“Then I give him a kiss … go to the front desk, sign him in, and I’m off for the day,” Solomon said. “He does all his waking up at the center.”

The Little Creek-Fort Story facility is one of eight military child development centers that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help troops whose odd hours and unpredictable schedules rule out the option of relying on traditional day cares. Seven are operated by the Navy; the Army has one.

Proponents argue the military services should build more of those facilities to support single parents, dual-military families and troops whose unique jobs can create unusual child care needs, particularly as families nationwide struggle to find reliable, affordable options for care. But the services say they have no plans to open more 24-hour centers, and are instead trying to grow the number of in-home child care options.

That leaves many U.S. service members without an around-the-clock option for child care, potentially adding stressors that can affect troops’ performance at work and spur them to consider more stable work in the private sector.

For Solomon and her husband, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Niko Solomon, workdays are rarely routine. But the 24-hour child development center at Little Creek-Fort Story offers the family peace of mind that their son is cared for while they turn to the matter of national defense.

“This 24/7 center has helped parents with that nontraditional work schedule,” Solomon said. “If it weren’t for this day care, we don’t know what we would do,” she said.

Inside a 24-hour child care center

About 100 military kids are enrolled at 24-hour child care centers on seven installations in four states: Naval Medical Center Portsmouth; Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads; JEB Little Creek-Fort Story; and Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; Naval Base Coronado, California; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and Fort Jackson, South Carolina. An eighth center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Md., is temporarily closed as officials mull its future.

The Little Creek-Fort Story center, established in 2009, is smaller than a typical child development center and feels more like a home than a day care. Fifteen children are enrolled full-time at the 24/7 center, which can accommodate up to 27 children from infants through age 12. It’s also in the process of adding to its staff of nine, and expanding its space to add eight more spots for infants during the regular workday.

The open-plan building is stocked with toys and other activities for toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children; kids can do homework, read and play games in the facility’s media room.

When Military Times recently visited the 24-hour facility, teachers encouraged preschoolers to name the first letters of words in an early-reader book, and took suggestions from the kids on what color to shade in clouds while drawing in the center’s science area.

Rather than splitting into age groups like at other child care centers, children at the Little Creek facility learn and play as a group. Each activity is modified to meet the individual needs of each child. And when it’s meal time, the children eat together, family-style.

“All of the activities, we do together,” said Taina Curtis, the center’s director. “Sometimes you’ll see the infants with the older children, and they absolutely love it, because they think they’re big brothers and big sisters here.”

The facility also hosts family events, from a puppy parade to a pizza workshop to a saxophone tutorial.

When it’s time for bed, boys and girls split into separate bedrooms. Each child has their own bed, with their picture hanging nearby and their choice of blankets. Older kids have one bathroom; younger children have another. At night, staff members are required to check on the sleeping children every hour.

While the centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, children are rarely there for 24 hours straight, said Kelly Green, director of child and youth programs at JEB Little Creek-Fort Story.

“Parents generally just need a nontraditional schedule,” Green said. “Most of the time a child is in our care for maybe 12 hours.”

Kids enrolled in full-time care can attend the centers for up to 60 hours per week, on average, and are capped at spending 72 continuous hours in their care, except in emergencies as authorized by a commander, according to Navy spokeswoman Destiny Sibert.

To enroll their child full-time at a 24-hour center, a family must prove their work schedule necessitates after-hours care, Sibert said. Parents pay the same rate, based on total family income, that they would pay at a regular military child care facility, Sibert said.

The centers also provide child care to families who occasionally need after-hours help, such as those on 24-hour duty and reservists. In addition, if a 24-hour center has spots available, other families can use it for $8 per hour.

A complicated monthly schedule, hanging on the wall above a beloved fish tank, notes when each child is expected at the Little Creek-Fort Story center to ensure there’s adequate staffing, and to keep tabs on when hourly care might be available to other families. At least two staffers work overnight at the Little Creek-Fort Story center, with added help as needed depending on the number of children, Green said.

But that schedule changes daily as parents hit unexpected snags at work or as their shifts move around.

Master-at-Arms 1st Class Solomon, who works in the base security department at JEB Little Creek-Fort Story, is usually on the clock for 12-hour shifts from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. for two or three days in a row each week. That requires her to be at work by 4:30 a.m. to arm up, and as a supervisor, to account for each of her subordinates.

If she has to be at Fort Story, 20 minutes from Little Creek, that means getting Isaiah to child care earlier. Solomon sometimes can’t leave work until around 6:30 p.m. on the days when a pressing issue arises at the end of a shift.

“Where am I going to get him to a day care at 3 in the morning?” she said. “That’s where the 24/7 centers are clutch for us.”

Her husband Niko is stationed aboard the amphibious assault ship Bataan. When the ship’s in port, he’s usually able to take Isaiah to and pick him up from child care — but not while he was deployed from October to March. And even when sailors are home, 24-hour duty days and other commitments can force parents to find extended-hours child care — a particular challenge for those without a support system nearby.

“We don’t have family here,” Imani Solomon said. “I’m from New York originally, and my husband’s from Florida.”

Navy Capt. David Gray, the joint base’s commander, praised the 24-hour center for reassuring sailors and soldiers that their kids will be cared for, despite the unorthodox work hours and responsibilities that can pose struggles for those in uniform.

“Every base should have a 24/7 center,” he said.

No plans to expand

Military families have long struggled to find high-quality, affordable child care for their kids. The coronavirus pandemic further exacerbated those troubles, as staffing shortages limited hours of operation and forced some day cares to close altogether.

During a May 8 hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said there were 12,000 military children on waiting lists for child care as of last year.

“I have to assume the demand would be even greater, except there are some people who just give up and don’t even put a child on the wait list,” she said.

As of May 31, there were 11,007 military children on child care waiting lists, Pentagon spokesman Joshua Wick said Wednesday. That marks a 22% decrease since the end of 2021, when the number stood at about 14,600, Wick said.

He noted that it’s typical to see waiting lists grow ahead of and throughout the summer, when service members are moving to new bases.

Still, around-the-clock child care centers have remained under the radar for many in the military community, and there’s no sign that the services will opt to add more.

“I wasn’t aware that eight locations have 24-hour centers,” said Eileen Huck, of the National Military Family Association. “That’s a great option to have, especially since there are fewer family child cares than in the past.”

Army spokesperson Matt Ahearn said the service has no plans to increase the number of 24-hour child development centers. Nor does the Navy, according to Sibert, who said some of its 24-hour centers haven’t hit capacity.

It costs about twice as much per child to operate a 24/7 center than a regular child development center, Sibert said.

There are no 24/7 child care centers in the Marine Corps, Air Force or Space Force.

“The Department of the Air Force addresses the need for 24-hour child care through the Family Child Care program, which allows children to experience a home-like environment and does not rely upon traditional child development centers for after-hours care,” said Air Force spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco.

The 24-hour centers are rare in the civilian community, too.

“Parents looking for center-based care during [non-standard hours] find their options are either extremely limited or simply nonexistent,” concluded a 2019 report by the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America.

Child Care Aware works with a national network of more than 500 child care resource and referral agencies and other partners to help families access high-quality, affordable child care. The organization also administers the military services’ child care fee-assistance programs for military families.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found in 2015 that only 8% of child care centers surveyed in the U.S. provide child care during atypical work hours. Of those, 6% offered overnight care, 2% offered care during evening hours, and 3% offered weekend care.

While family child care providers are more likely to provide care during non-standard hours, only about one in three of those providers provide any non-standard care, according to Child Care Aware.

Without the option of always-open child care, parents who work outside the normal 9-to-5 are forced to cobble together a patchwork of center-based care, family child care homes, and friends, neighbors or family members — if they’re available. And their child care needs are often unpredictable.

Defense officials recognize the need for extended-hours child care to support those who work overnight shifts or conduct night operations, Pentagon spokesman Joshua Wick said. In lieu of adding more 24-hour centers, military officials are working to expand other options for families in need of child care.

Each service has tried to increase child care availability by offering incentives to prospective child care workers and boosting the number of in-home day cares, which can be more flexible than traditional centers. Those family child care home businesses are run by providers — often military spouses — who must meet stringent DOD requirements to offer services in their homes, and cost the least per child to run, Sibert said.

Families are eligible to apply for a program that offers subsidies to cover the cost of local day cares; a pilot program for in-home options like nannies at some locations; or for their local installation’s family child care program, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Maj. Danielle Phillips.

Some providers offer overnight and extended-hour child care for kids as old as 12. Military families in certain locations may also sign onto nanny-sharing agreements so multiple households can benefit from one local provider, at the times that work for them.

Wick added that base commanders set their own local requirements for overnight and extended-hours child care based on their local missions, the volume of requests for that care and the results of occasional surveys.

“In collaboration with the military services, we continue to explore various options to meet the unique needs of military families,” he said.

In 2002, the Navy launched a yearlong pilot program to study the need for and effectiveness of child care centers and family day cares who can provide care around the clock, Sibert said.

“Military parents agreed that the 24/7 type of care offered to them during the pilot period made it much easier for them to focus on their military mission and job requirements, and that this type of care was a significant support in that it greatly contributed to the sailor’s quality of life, particularly for single [parents] and dual-military families,” Sibert said.

But officials found an added benefit: “The commands reported that the 24/7 care model boosted installation morale, even for those who didn’t require child care,” Sibert said.

MA1 Solomon said the military doesn’t have to make exceptions for families like hers, but she’d like to see the services meet people halfway.

“If you want a sailor who is going to be operationally committed and operationally aware, then there needs to be a midway point,” she said. “If we know our children are safe, you will have a great sailor.”

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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