(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Leon Redfern)
The 2021 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey results were released to the public in March, and it tells us what we already know about the many challenges facing military families. With over 8,000 responses, this comprehensive study is the largest survey of active duty, national guard, and reserve service members, veterans, and their families. One issue that seems to contribute to most challenges is child care. 32% of respondents say child care is regularly needed, yet there are discrepancies between the availability of child care, the cost of childcare, and the overall quality.
Why is the system failing our parents and children?
The process of finding adequate child care can be a significant undertaking. According to the website Military Child Care, the Department of Defense oversees over 800 child care facilities worldwide for infants up to 12 years of age. However, according to the BSF report, only 22% of spouses with a need for child care report they can find childcare that works for their current situation.
DOD child care facilities use a priority tier list to fairly service the needs of families. The priority tiers from highest priority to lowest is child development staff, single/dual military members and military members with a full time working spouse, military members with a part-time employed spouse or spouse seeking employment, military members with a spouse enrolled full time in a post-secondary institution, single/dual DOD civilians or with a full time working spouse, and everyone else needing care. Each tier is broken into subcategories; for instance, priority level 1B.1 is active duty combat-related wounded warriors.
Joy Moses, an army spouse living at Fort Drum, New York, was once employed at a military Child Development Center in Italy. She said the process of narrowing down who gets the top spot is unfortunate. “We had a lot of people that took advantage of the system,” she said. “So because one of the higher priority levels is a service member with a spouse looking for employment, and there were plenty of people we knew weren’t actually looking for employment. They just wanted their kids in daycare. So because of that, there are a lot of civilians and contractors that couldn’t get into care who really did need it because those people took a higher quality level.”
When you have to factor in care for children with special needs, there are additional challenges spouses have to take. Rebecca Emerson, a prior Air Force service member and current military spouse, faced these challenges firsthand for her youngest child, diagnosed with Down Syndrome. While one child was in an on-base facility, she knew that it wouldn’t be the same experience for her youngest, so he was enrolled in a civilian location. “It put us into this real jam of commuting to two different childcare facilities,” said Emerson. “I put my oldest on the waiting list for the same facility as his younger sibling, which took about eight months to get him in there.”
The high price we have to pay
The BSF report stated that military spouse employment is part of the top five military life issues, and expensive child care contributes to how spouses choose what direction to take with employment. 34% of survey respondents in the report said that child care is too costly.
On average, infant care cost is $16,000 per year in the United States, with the steep price tag slightly decreasing as the child gets older. 27% of employed spouses who participated in the BSF survey say that child care contributes to financial stress.
The cost was a huge stressor for Emerson. “On-base would have been the same amount for both children, but the off-base location was a lot more expensive,” she said. “Then I had to supplement with my own out-of-pocket expenses, which was another babysitter.”
The pay structure for on-base care is dependent on the total household income. For instance, an army household that receives $90,000 to $100,000 per year would pay $617 a month. Private facility fees off-base vary by state but average $1,200 a month.
Pandemonium in a pandemic
According to a study by Child Care Aware of America, capacity at facilities has been drastically reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with as many as a third of child care centers remaining closed more than a year after the pandemic began. Over 4 in 10 active-duty spouses who are not employed but want to work stated that child care is unavailable or the waitlist is too long.
“8,889 child care centers closed their doors between December 2019 and March 2021,” the CCoA reported. “There is no doubt the pandemic exacerbated an already fragile child care system.”
Moses knows all too well how COVID-19 shook the childcare world. As a former employee of an on-installation childcare facility in Italy, she has seen how everything changed instantly. “At one point in time, we actually closed down all of our centers, and we were left with one,” said Moses. “Everything combined into one CDC.”
Resources and quality that’s not one size fits all
On top of all the other issues stands the question of quality child care. “Quality care provides the emotional, and academic support children need to be school-ready by the time they enter kindergarten,” read the CCAoA report.
One Army spouse who asked that only her last name be used said her experience with on-base child care was quite negative.”I had so many bad experiences in just two weeks,” said Mrs. McCord “My three-year-old screamed and even ran out the door in terror because he did not want to be there, which that day was the last day my kids went. My son goes to the YMCA daycare when I go to the gym, and he loves it and begs to go back and never wants to leave, and he is like that almost always when we drop him off at other daycares. So for him to be so scared that he tried to run away shows that something was going on and he wasn’t ok there any longer.”
Military families have access to a wide range of resources, but they may not apply to everyone.
“What frustrated me the most was everybody kept pointing to resources for me, but it wasn’t for me,” Emerson said. “It wasn’t for a working spouse, period. The resources are really for EFMP kids, or only for stay-at-home moms.”
According to the CCAoA report, states have attempted to define quality measures, and 43 states and Washington, D.C. currently have a fully operational quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), with an additional four states currently piloting programs. However, evidence shows that the current QRIS system is not equitable nationwide and that many programs cannot implement a QRIS due to a lack of money and time investment.
How can we make it better?
BSF’s survey results provided several clear actions for child care reform, including increasing child care capacity at all levels, expanding bilingual resources, expanding drop-in care hours, and providing more resources for EFMP families.
A common theme among all the spouses interviewed was the availability of child care centers and being flexible with multiple children, schedules, and the bill. “Make yourself more accessible,” said Emerson.
“I think more child care facilities need to be more adaptive to family incomes and especially those who need daycare for more than one child,” said Mrs. McCord.
Moses had a different perspective on what could be improved: the staff. Even though Moses had a great supervisor, others did not get that same experience. “How do I say this in child-appropriate language? It was a big mess,” she said. “You literally felt like you were running around like a chicken with your head cut off 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not that long, but during work hours, it was a mess.”
For families still struggling to find child care, there are short-term solutions. “My biggest piece of advice would be to get creative, really reach out there and try to find a solution that works for your family,” said Emerson. “I had a friend whose unit decided that they would do it internally, and they couldn’t find shift work. So shift work childcare. So they rotated, taking care of each other’s kids.”
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