Working military families will get higher priority in Defense Department child care programs under a new policy signed by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The changes take effect June 1.

Not only does the new policy give these families priority, it would allow officials to displace children who are already in a child development program, whose parents are in a lower priority category, if the military family is expected to be on a wait list for more than 45 days after the time they need child care.

For example, the policy changes moves DoD civilians down on the priority list. If a military family moving into the area is expected to be on a wait list for more than 45 days, a DoD civilian family’s child could be displaced from the DoD child care program to make room for that military child, with a minimum of 45 days notice to the civilian family.

“The DoD’s system of child care was established to assist service members as they face the unique challenges associated with the demands of military service. Over time, child care access expanded to serve the total force, but we must not lose sight of the service member and mission requirements,” wrote Esper, in his memorandum signed Feb. 21.

For years, military leaders have said the common thread they hear when visiting service members is the lack of available and affordable child care. Military child development centers are known nationally for their quality, and parents’ fees are subsidized by taxpayer dollars to make the care more affordable for military families.

“In some areas, we may have lost sight of our military member, and what this does is level-set that the military member priority is first and foremost," said Vee Penrod, acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, in a call with reporters. The policy elevates the priority of the military spouse, she said.

Under the previous policy, DoD civilian employees generally have had the same priority as military members, depending on family circumstances.

“We’re very pleased with this move,” said Nicole Russell, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, noting that it aligns more with the needs of working military families. “This policy will help these struggling families when they move from one installation to another,” she said.

The child development centers in certain areas have the highest wait times, she said, primarily Hawaii, the National Capital Region, Norfolk and San Diego. Generally in other areas children are placed within 30 days, she said.

“This is a great step definitely in the right direction, especially when talking about supporting military families with full-time working spouses," she said.

Allowing the displacement of other children to make room for military children is an important step, she said. “We’re all in this together, and DoD civilians absolutely are important. But a lot of them don’t move nearly as frequently as active duty."

DoD civilians tend to stay at certain duty stations, and “that obviously takes up spots for active duty families who are [moving to the new duty station],” she said. Families who are notified they are displaced will have adequate time to seek child care elsewhere, she said, with the 45-day notice.

“It’s a readiness issue, when you have active-duty members who can’t get to work because they can’t find child care. That’s a huge problem,” Russell said.

“We’re pleased that DoD is recognizing the hardship that child development center wait lists pose for military families,” she said.

In addition to child development centers, DoD child development programs include certified family child care homes, which are also highly regulated. Families apply for and request child care through for all military-operated child care. If a family declines care at an installation where they have requested child care through, they will be removed from all current wait lists, and must re-request care through the website, according to the policy.

Esper also included a process for exceptions to the policy for unique mission-related requirements. Installation commanders in charge of child development programs have authority to grant exceptions in writing.

The new policy sets these priorities for children:

1. Children of child development program “direct care” staff. Direct care staff are those who directly care for and supervise children. Children of parents in this category can’t be displaced by those in lower priorities.

2. Children of single or dual active-duty members; single or dual Guard and Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training status; and service members with a full-time working spouse. Children of parents in this category can’t be displaced by those in lower priorities.

3. Children of active-duty members or Guard or Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training status with a part-time working spouse or a spouse seeking employment. These children can be displaced by those in the first two priorities when the wait time is more than 45 days beyond the date the higher-priority families need child care.

4. Children of active-duty members or Guard or Reserve members on active duty or inactive duty training status with a spouse enrolled full-time in a post-secondary institution. These can be displaced by children of parents in the first three categories when the wait time is more than 45 days beyond the date child care is needed.

5. Children of DoD civilian employees , with single or dual DoD civilians getting precedence; then DoD civilians with a working spouse. They can only be displaced by an eligible child development staff member, or eligible single, dual service members or those with a full-time working spouse — those in first and second priorities.

6. Space available: These include, in order of precedence: active duty with non-working spouse; DoD civilian employees with spouse seeking employment; DoD civilian with spouse enrolled in full-time post-secondary education; Gold Star spouses; active duty Coast Guard members; DoD contractors and others.

In cases where a priority includes active-duty members and Guard and Reserve members, the active-duty members take precedence within that priority category.

Service members who are designated as combat-related wounded warriors in an active-duty status and require hospitalization, extensive rehabilitation, or significant care from a spouse or care provider and require full-time child care may be placed into the highest active duty priority (Priority 2 above.) This designation requires installation commander approval.

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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