Early Childhood Education

Department of Defense (DoD) Child Development System

 

The Department of Defense (DoD) considers care for young children of military members to be a workforce issue with direct impact on the effectiveness and readiness of the force. The demands of military service are many and challenging. The DoD points to the frequent moves, long family separations, and rapid deployments that make quality child care necessary to national defense and vital to military families around the world. The DoD Child Development System, one of the largest employer-sponsored programs in the country, serves over 200,000 children (newborn-twelve years) daily. Each service branch operates within DoD standards to ensure consistent, affordable quality care is offered and programs meet local military command needs.

The goals of the DoD Child Development System are to assist the commander in balancing the needs of the family with the needs of the military mission; to promote the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of the child; and to provide each parent with at least one affordable child care option for each child.

Although child care had always been a necessity in the military, it began primarily as hourly care and drop-off services supported by volunteers. The needs of each individual military installation determined the care available. But the demands changed dramatically in the mid-70s with the advent of an all-volunteer force. As the number of families, active duty mothers, and single parents grew, the military realized that in order to have a ready force, it must address the need for child care.

Today, the DoD child development program stands as a model for the nation. This was not always the case, however. Internal focus and investigation revealed the potential dangers and deficiencies of child care lacking adequate funding and oversight. In 1982, the General Accounting Office reported that the program did not meet fire, safety, and health standards and there was no oversight of family child care. At the same time, as has occurred in other child care and development programs, the DoD program experienced several highly publicized child abuse allegations. These events served as a catalyst for Congressional hearings in 1988, and in 1989 Congress passed the Military Child Care Act (MCCA) which became the driving force for change. By implementing these recommendations for change and the wide-reaching requirements of the MCCA, the DoD Child Development Program was able to reinvent itself and form a seamless system of child care for service members.

The MCCA required changes affecting the entire military child care program. Five factors have been key in developing the successful DoD system.

First is the systematic approach to the program. There are four components: child development centers, family child care homes, school-age care, and registration and referral. All components are equal partners in the system. A parent can access all components from one single point of entry. Training standards, inspections, and background clearances are equivalent.

Second is the recognition that a quality program costs more than most parents can afford to pay. The DoD is committed to a prescribed level of funding for all child development programs. On the average, parents pay half the cost of care in other centers. In family child care programs, DoD provides indirect financial support through equipment lending libraries, low or no cost insurance options and training for child care providers. In most instances, DoD also provides direct cash subsidies as incentives for family child care providers to care for infants, children with special needs, and offer extended hours of operation.

The third element is strict oversight of all programs and adherence to standards. There are comprehensive unannounced inspections for all facilities and programs with mandatory correction of deficiencies within ninety days. Noncompliance can, and has, resulted in closure of a center or home. As a result, facilities are in good repair and there is high-quality, institutional-grade equipment that contributes to the positive development of children.

The fourth element directly linked to program quality is the wage and training program for staff. Military caregiver wages average approximately $12.00-18.00 per hour compared to minimum wages in the civilian community and include a range of benefits. Competency-based training is tied to wages and an “up- or-out” personnel policy requires the successful completion of training. After completing training modules based on the thirteen Child Development Associate (CDA) competencies, all caregivers must complete twenty-four hours of training annually. Caregivers and trainers work together to determine areas that need strengthening. Low turnover provides children with the continuity of care so vital to their healthy development.

Finally, the commitment by DoD that all military child development centers must meet national accreditation standards established by National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) provides DoD an objective evaluation instrument by an outside organization. Because DoD Child Development Programs operate on federal property, they are not subject to state and local child care licensing requirements. However, programs meet comprehensive certification standards established by DoD based on state standards. This certification requires a thorough review of programs with special emphasis on staffing, health and nutrition, safety, and the physical environment. Uniform certification requirements ensure a comparable quality program from one military installation to another, thus providing DoD military and civilian personnel with consistency wherever they may be located. The combination of the DoD certification, equivalent to state licensing, and adherence to national accreditation standards results in a comprehensive review of all center programs.

At the present time, military families with young children have access to a variety of DoD child development options, including Child Development Centers (CDCs) at over 300 locations to provide services for children six weeks to 5 years of age. Most child development centers operate between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. Other options include school-age care (SAC) programs offered for children (ages 6-12) before and after school, during holidays and summer vacations and family child care (FCC) programs that consist of in home care provided by certified providers living in government-owned or leased housing. There are more than 9,000 licensed and trained FCC providers. Families rely upon FCC to provide flexible child care for mildly ill children, and night, weekend and nontraditional hourly care for shift work or rotating schedules. Registration and referral (R&R) programs serve as a “one-stop” for parents to gain access to various programs and to obtain referral information about quality child care in the local community.

As an employer-sponsored program, the DoD shares the cost of child care with parents. Parent fees, using a sliding fee scale based on total family income, are established to generate approximately 50 percent of the direct cost of operating the total program. The remainder of the total operating cost of the program is subsidized with government appropriated funds. The average DoD weekly fee was $84.00 in 2004 and did not vary based on the age of the child. In private sector child care, care for infants often costs parents significantly more than for preschoolers. Cost-sharing funds provided by DoD go to the programs, not to the families/patrons. This is a key difference between DoD employer funding and many other government or employer funding approaches.

The DoD occasionally receives additional Emergency Supplemental appropriations during times of war. These funds have been used to provide additional child care services including extended hours, respite for spouses with a deployed military member, and care for children of activated National Guard and Reservists.

The Office of Children and Youth within the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the point of contact for overall policy for child development programs in DoD. Each of the Military Departments (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force) and Defense Agencies (National Security Agency and Defense Logistics Agency) issue regulations based on these policies.

Janice Witte