When service members leave the military, their transition affects the entire family — including the very youngest members.
So for families with young children who will need child care, it pays to start your research early.
"Even if you live in the same location, there's a chance you'll have to move the child into another child care situation. How does that affect the child?" said Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.
"Will you be able to find the same quality of child care and afford it? It's not just a financial concern, but a concern for the well-being of your child.
"Sometimes I think families don't think about these additional expenses. ... People transition from the military at all points in careers. This is something families need to be aware of, something communities need to be aware of, and DoD needs to be aware of," she said.
The costs may surprise you
For families using military child care programs, the government is subsidizing part of that care, whether at child development centers on an installation, at military family day care homes, or using fee assistance programs to pay for part of the cost of child care off the base. Fees are on a sliding scale based on total family income — not the case with civilian providers, though fee assistance may exist for low-income families in some communities.
In most cases, families leaving the military won’t be eligible for continued military child care. Possible exceptions for child development centers and military family day care homes would be if the service member transitions into a new job as a DoD civilian or a government contractor employee.
The cost of child care in military programs is generally standard. But in the civilian community, costs vary widely from state to state and can be one of the most expensive items in a family's budget. The nonprofit Child Care Aware of America’s most recent study of child care costs found that in 2014, the least affordable state for center-based care for a 4-year-old was New York, where the average annual cost was $11,700, representing 12.6 percent of a couple's median income of $93,157. The report, Parents and the High Cost of Child Care, is available at childcareaware.org.
In comparison, a military family with the same total family income would currently pay $137 a week, or $7,124 a year.
Your child is transitioning, too
But cost is by far not the only factor. Military child development centers and family day care homes are known for their high standard of care, with required inspections, structure, curriculum, a set number of children that caregivers are allowed to care for, and many other aspects.
"DoD recognizes that when a child is well cared for, it supports you in your work," said Dorinda Williams, director of military family projects at the nonprofit Zero to Three. "It could be a real loss to have the absence of that." The nonprofit’s mission is to ensure that all babies and toddlers get a strong start in life.
Child care "is a very concrete concern for families, one of many concerns veterans are experiencing. And from the perspective of the child, it’s a change.
"Just at the time that young child would benefit from a sense of predictability and a loving, nurturing relationship, the child is losing important people in his or her life," Williams said.
"There’s a shift in routine. Young children thrive on predictability and routine," she said. Routine makes them feel physically as well as emotionally safe.
"We stress how important that civilian community will be to the transitioning family. There’s no wrong door" for assistance, she said. Whether it’s a faith-based organization or government group, if information is shared, more families can be helped. Communities "should make sure every door is wide open, and they’re thoughtful and aware of programs available to veteran families, and think of what the family is going through. ...
"We’re starting to see more responsiveness, but it varies from community to community. More communities are starting to be aware of veterans coming in, but some may be farther along."
One initiative Zero to Three is developing is a curriculum called Baby Brigade, a veteran-connected parent program. Because veterans often relate to other veterans, groups will be led by a veteran and another professional.
"It will be an opportunity for veterans to think about parenting young children against the backdrop of transitioning out of the service," Williams said. The veterans will be able to discuss parenting with others at a time when they themselves are also adjusting to no longer serving on active duty. In each group meeting, someone from the community will share information about a service or resource, helping veterans get better acquainted with something that might prove helpful to their families.
Zero to Three will start a pilot program of the curriculum late this year or in early 2017 in Chicago, an area which has done a lot to support veterans' families, Williams said.
Get help from the pros
Defense officials encourage military families to seek help in finding child care from Military OneSourceconsultants, who can help with a variety of issues related to moving. Those services are available to military families for up to 180 days after separation and can be helpful before, during and after.
DoD also asks parents to make sure they have a conversation with their current child care providers when they know they will transition, she said. "As part of the parent-staff team, the child care provider can provide some insight for the parents as they plan and search for the most appropriate placement."
DoD also points parents to the nonprofit Child Care Aware for help in finding and choosing child care in the civilian community.
The key is connecting to child care resources and referral agencies within local communities, said Melanie Brizzi, senior director of child care services for Child Care Aware of America. That organization is keenly aware of the child care programs that DoD offers. As a contractor, Child Care Aware administers the military services' child care fee assistance programs, which help certain eligible military parents find and partially pay for quality child care in the civilian community.
Finding affordable, quality child care "can be extremely daunting, particularly for these families who are moving and making a career change and don’t know anyone in the community," Brizzi said.
"If they’ve always used on-base military child care, they’ve never had to worry about the different types of civilian child care," she said. In addition to center-based care and family day care, there are:
- Different types of care in your home
- Faith-based care
- Care by family members, friends or neighbors
- Before- and after-school
- Early Head Start, Head Start and other programs
Information is available on types of child care at the childcareaware.org site under "Families."
Know all of your options
Brizzi recommends starting early — a year in advance, if possible — when learning about the full range of services and options in the state where you'll be living
Some families may be eligible for assistance with child care costs through Head Start or child development block grants. Some assistance is specific to local communities, she said. Fee assistance isn’t always available, but the best place to start is through the Child Care Aware site.
Every state has different requirements related to child care. In some states, for example, providers have to be licensed only if they care for more than five children.
Finding out whether a provider is licensed — or is even supposed to be — can be difficult. The Child Care Aware site offers tips on choosing child care and provides some questions to ask potential providers. The organization recommends visiting several providers, especially those that allow you to visit at any time, unannounced, Brizzi said.
More and more states are making public their information about child care inspections, and the Child Care Aware site can point families to the data. Some states are also developing ratings and improvement systems.
Cost and quality of care are both extremely important and can be challenging for families, Brizzi said.
"With families moving, children need a stable environment. So families working together with the provider to create a stable, high-quality environment is critical.
"Any time children move — going to a new home, parents going to a new job, with a new child care provider — there is a lot of transition, and there are steps to help smooth that."