Service in the Armed Forces requires much from the men and women, particularly when it comes to family life. One of the ways we ease that burden as a nation is by providing accessible and affordable military child care. Still, the process of finding the right care for the sons and daughters of our service personnel isn’t the easiest to navigate. There are lots to consider. You may need to find care before and after school, or have a child with special needs, and what do you do when there’s an immediate deployment?

The good news is that the Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes the strain of service on families. The military has in recent years focused on building a system for military child care that works.

Military Child Care: The Policy

The U.S. government views military child care as an essential aspect of readiness for its service personnel. The DoD recognizes that more parents are both entering the service and that the nature of military employment is inherently unpredictable. But that doesn’t mean you are guaranteed care. The DoD wants to you know that military child care is not an entitlement. Resources are limited, and service personnel are asked to share in the cost.

That said, the Department of Defense has an enormous stake in doing what it can, in the right way.  According to the Congressional Research Service, DoD military child care is the largest employer-sponsored program in the nation, with a budget of $800 million. It serves more than 200,000 children and employs more than 23,000 child care workers.

Ages and stages

The U.S. government provides military child care for children at all stages of their young lives. But the programs do recognize that children require different support as they grow older. Different types of care are available as your child ages. Child Development Centers make up one of the main features of the U.S. military child care program. There are more than 800 of these centers operating on military installations worldwide. These centers serve children from 4 weeks through 6 years of age.

Parents also may qualify for a home-based option through one of the military’s Family Child Care/Child Development Homes. These consist of certified, licensed providers caring for children on military bases, in homes either owned or leased by the military. This program is open to children through the age of 12. The centers generally operate during weekdays, but evening, weekend, and holiday care are also available.

As parents know, our children aren’t young forever. So the military also provides a School Age Care program, for children ages 6 through 12 years old. School Age Care is intended to plug the gaps in schedules, providing before and after-school care, or care on holidays or during the summer. In general, the type of care available depends on your child’s age. Categories of care include infant, pre-toddler, toddler, and pre-school, before jumping to school age.

Accountability

Caring for so many children is an awesome responsibility. The military wants to reassure parents that it insists on very high standards. As such, the Department has established extensive oversight programs. The oversight includes periods of unannounced inspections four times a year, as well as background checks. Outside agencies must accredit individual providers of care. Parents and staff are also asked to give direct feedback about their experiences.

Eligibility

Military child care is not guaranteed as there is more demand than spots available. Expect that you may spend some time on a waiting list. According to the Congressional Research Service report cited earlier, the military in 2015 was only able to meet the needs of about 80 percent of people who applied.

However, know that all active-duty personnel are eligible for military child care. So are civilians in the DoD, reserve personnel, those wounded on duty, surviving spouses, guardians of dependent children born into military families, and individual employees of DoD contractors. The military awards spots on a priority basis established by the DoD. The highest-priority category includes children whose parents survived combat wounds and other active service members.

The priority categories take into consideration factors such as whether your spouse also works outside the home or is enrolled in college. Military retirees are also eligible, but only on a space-available basis.

Cost

The Department of Defense pays a portion of the cost for military child care. But parents who enroll their children will also have to pay their share. However, the contribution requires a calculation of total family income. What you’ll pay will be based on a sliding scale.

Standard full-time military child care fees recently ranged $250 at lower income levels to $900 per child per month for higher incomes, according to the Congressional Research Service. The government adjusts these fees regularly. There are also opportunities to apply for receive assistance with these fees from a DoD partner known as Child Care Aware of America.

Application Process

In an organization as complex as the Department of Defense, the potential for confusion in military child care is high. The government took steps a few years ago to simplify its processes with the creation of a single system-wide portal at militarychildcare.com.

In addition to applying for care, you can also access information and other resources that will help you navigate the system. This site should be your first stop in the search for appropriate military childcare. Note that this is a secure site, and you might see some warnings as you first navigate your way there. There are four steps to registering, according to the website.

Register

You’ll need to let the military know who you are and what your needs are. This step involves creating a simple account, filling out your household password with a username and password. In creating your account, you will have access to be able to find appropriate military child care.

Seek care

Militarychildcare.com provides tools for parents to search for the best options in one place. Before the creation of the portal, each installation maintained its own military child care system. You’ll be able to see every child development and family child care center in the vicinity. You’ll also be able to see how far from the center is from work or home using the map function.

Manage/select

In the same way, you can manage documents anywhere using Google Docs, you can also use MilitaryChildCare.com no matter where you live. Once you log-in, you can check on the status, and modify or cancel requests.

Updates

Keep using MilitaryChildCare.com throughout your career as your child’s needs change. Update your profile at any time as circumstances change. The life of a service family is rarely static for very long. Your profile stays with you.

Military Child Care Alternatives

The Department of Defense also recognizes that no program perfectly fits the needs of every parent and child. So it has devoted resources aimed at both helping parents afford care and also find it for shorter periods or on an emergency basis. The DoD also understands that some children have special needs, and will work with you to find the right providers in your specific community. Several of these programs are under contract with the military through Child Care Aware of America.

Operation: Military Child Care

Operation: Military Child Care focuses on parents who have been activated and deployed away from their home base in the U.S. Global War on Terrorism or related military missions. Care is available for the full period of deployment, and either 30 or 60 days upon their return. The program is open to personnel with the status of recruiter or deployed recruiter and relies on accredited community child care facilities for slots.

Military Child Care In Your Neighborhood (MCCYN)

Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood has similar purposes but is intended for active duty personnel not deployed. This program acknowledges that there may be many reasons why on-base care is not appropriate or available. It is open to active duty personnel, civilians, National Guard, Reservists and Technicians, and, like Operation: Military Child Care, offers fee support. Once again, your income determines the level of fee support you may receive

Peace of Mind

Men and women who serve in the military are under enormous stress. Their careers require them to make great sacrifices both at home and abroad. In recent years the Department of Defense has streamlined programs for providing military child care to make it easier and more affordable to find the care you need to give you peace of mind.

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