How does Military Child Care work? Is Military Child Care Free?
These are the common questions the civilian population has for organizations like ours. The quick answers are that most people do not know how military child care works, including those in the military and sometimes those who work in military child care.
Military child care is certainly not free, there are subsidies available but you have to qualify, know where to apply, know when to push back, know who to talk to, know when to check in, and know what to do if you need care outside of a 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. window (Monday through Friday).
This means there are significant gaps within the military child care system. This year long pilot program examined what is needed to fill those gaps using Norfolk, Virginia as the test location due to its large military population.
The Operation Child Care Project: Bridging the Gaps
This paper examines Operation Child Care's impact on addressing inadequate search tools for military families' child care needs in Virginia. Despite being home to the highest military and veteran population in the US, the region lacks sufficient child care support, especially for non-traditional care. Operation Child Care responded by launching a nanny agency in July 2022 and introducing a comprehensive search tool in November 2022.
Covering November 2022 to November 2023, the report highlights the challenges faced by military families. Among the key findings, the three most critical gaps were the absence of results for essential criteria in the search process, explicitly opening time, closing time, and acceptance of subsidies. This paper advocates for comprehensive solutions to address these gaps and improve child care accessibility for military families in Virginia.
Child care access in the military community requires a unique approach due to distinct challenges. While the broader civilian population faces difficulties in securing affordable and high-quality child care, the impact on the military community is disproportionately severe. Factors contributing to this include a lack of robust local support networks, non-traditional scheduling demands, elevated unemployment rates among military spouses, and unclear child care options.
Inadequate child care accessibility has cascading effects on military families, leading to increased rates of food insecurity, challenges in securing employment, and more young children lacking external support amid the challenges of military service. The inability to access affordable, quality child care disrupts the financial stability of military families, making them more vulnerable to unexpected costs—a prevalent aspect of military life.
The initial months after a family's arrival in the region pose significant challenges, with disruptions in employment and the complex process of re-establishing family life. Spouses often struggle to maintain employment while handling family dynamics, school enrollment, healthcare services, and social network building. OCC addresses this gap by contracting with DoD-affiliated individuals, including active duty, retired, reserves, DoD civilian employees, contractors, and their families, to serve as nannies or caregivers for other DoD-affiliated families. OCC ensures caregiver reliability through thorough background checks, reference verification, and third-party training, providing families with a trustworthy support system. The nanny referral pilot program successfully met non-traditional care needs for 24 families, offering flexible income opportunities for 26 military spouses and accommodating their specific requirements, enabling them to care for their children concurrently.
In Norfolk, our search tool engaged over 600 families, reducing the average search time from four months to just four seconds. The Operation Child Care Project addressed gaps by providing case management and application assistance to 37 families in Hampton Roads, enhancing visibility for 74 licensed in-home centers. Personal stories from 107 families informed our tailored solutions.
With a total expenditure of $42,100, we served 794 individuals at an average cost of $53.02 per family. This approach demonstrated a more significant impact than direct funds to end-users.
Insights from the search tool reveal that the most sought-after criteria were opening time, closing time, and subsidy acceptance. Notably, 68% sought care before 6 am, and 60% sought care after 6 pm, highlighting the demand for non-traditional care. About 10% of searches yielded no results due to limited operational scope in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
Only 20 families used the special needs filter, with all 20 returning zero results. Identified additional support needs were 1-on-1 support followed by emotional support, emphasizing the necessity for tailored assistance.
Challenges and Barriers
Provider Engagement and Marketing Constraints: A limited marketing budget hindered effective outreach to child care providers, impacting their awareness and participation in our initiatives.
Tool Overload and Scattered Resources: The abundance of publicized resources confuses military families, making navigating and accessing needed services challenging.
Lack of Comparison Data: The absence of comparison data is a significant challenge. DoD systems like the Militarychildcare website lack comprehensive search capabilities and metrics. Child Care Aware of America lacks publicly available metrics and technological aspects in its system. The state-offered portal fails to address military family needs effectively. Military One Source's non-traditional care offering cannot track military-specific family needs or utilization.
Engage in Advocacy: Military families should be included in advocacy for policy changes prioritizing and allocating resources to address their unique child care needs, ensuring their voices are given the most weight in policy decisions affecting them.
Transparent Technology, Data, and Assessments: Implement technology to streamline information access, services, and assistance for military families, making it user-friendly. Transparent data availability and sharing will aid child care assistance programs in resource allocation. Regularly assess child care needs in the military community and publish results to ensure programs remain responsive to evolving challenges and demographic shifts.
In conclusion, Operation Child Care, driven by the determination of military families, emphasizes the vital role of child care as infrastructure. Recognizing limitations in top-down decision-making, substantial investments tailored to the military community by military families are crucial. Solutions should arise from those directly impacted. Federal, state, and local leaders should support grassroots initiatives like Operation Child Care, which combines technology and human impact to build a more inclusive, responsive, and adequate child care infrastructure for military families.