The Military Child Care Connection. (Reports from the Field)

Article excerpt

Every day the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) uses 297,451 diapers; prepares 594,902 servings of "liquid baby rations"; issues purchase orders for cribs, strollers, and rocking chairs; and sings thousands of lullaby "cadences." (1) It was not always that way. The profile of the U.S. Armed Forces has changed from that of single members living in barracks, to one of a diverse volunteer workforce with growing numbers of female service members, working spouses, and sole and dual military parents. (2) Child care has become a workforce issue vital to U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine families and to the military mission.

The military child care program is truly a Cinderella story. At one time, it was known as the "ghetto of American child care" with unsafe and unsuitable facilities, weak standards that were sporadically enforced, staff who were poorly trained and compensated with turnover rates at some centers as high as 300%, and a general lack of oversight and attention from military officials. (3) In the past dozen years, however, military child care has achieved a remarkable turnaround. Today it is acclaimed as a model for the nation, (4-6) and described as the "gold standard for child care." (7) Fully 50% of the children in military child care programs are under age three, and this article describes the military's approach to providing flexible, high-quality, affordable infant and toddler child care.

An Example of Employer-Sponsored Care

Before launching the largest employer-sponsored child care program in the country, the military services looked primarily to the private sector to meet the child care needs of their personnel. Those needs are special, however. Military work schedules require early morning and irregular duty hours, field exercises, and extended periods away from home. Families move every few years and must reestablish routines and child care arrangements with every new assignment. Service members posted overseas face language problems, and often their host nations lack child care services. In some instances they are in hostile environments. Few can depend on care by relatives. Even in the United States, the hours offered by off-post, civilian child care programs are too limited to help military families counter the instability in their work lives and bridge the distance separating them from relatives. Infant and toddler child care is difficult to find and expensive, and programs seldom admit children under six months of age. M oreover, the quality of care varies greatly in the communities surrounding military bases because child care licensing standards differ from state to state. This variability leaves military families unsure of the child care conditions they will find as they move from post to post.

In the wake of concerns over widely publicized child abuse scandals, congressional hearings culminated in the Military Child Care Act of 1989, which made far-reaching recommendations for improving the care provided by the military services. The DoD responded by creating a system of child care options, oversight to maintain standards and safety, training and improved wages for staff, accreditation to improve quality, and cost sharing to improve affordability. The comprehensive child care system that resulted now extends safe, high-quality care each day to more than 170,000 children from birth through age 12, at 300 locations around the world. (8)

Developing a Seamless Child Care System

The children in military families are served through a delivery system that includes child development centers, networks of family child care homes operated in government housing units and off base, and programs for school-age children. Many military bases also have outreach programs that provide on-site care during special functions, sponsor playgroups, and refer families to accredited child care programs in the civilian community. This delivery system is seamless, meaning there is a single point of entry to access care. …