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For the U.S. military, high quality child care is not just a family issue, it’s a matter of national security. Taking care of military families ensures soldiers can be ready to deploy at any time. Could the government-supported child care that supports military families be a model for civilian care? Special Correspondent Cat Wise reports.
Many families in the U.S. struggle to find affordable, quality child care. But there is one group that has access to what some say is the gold standard of child care for Americans. That is families in the military.
Tonight, special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon take a look at the military's child care system and why it seems to work so well.
It's part of our series Raising the Future: America's Child Care Dilemma.
It was a big day at Fort Belvoir last month. Dozens of military families gathered to celebrate 4- and 5-year-olds graduating from preschool and heading off to kindergarten in the fall.
Fort Belvoir is an Army base just outside D.C. in Fairfax, Virginia. About 10,000 service members and civilians live and work at the fort. Many of them are parents, who need child care in order to do their jobs. For the U.S. military, child care is not just a family issue. It's a matter of national security.
Col. Joshua Segraves, Garrison Commander, Fort Belvoir:
We have to take care of our families. And that means child care.
Colonel Joshua SeGraves is the garrison commander at Fort Belvoir. He says the military's child care system is mission critical.
Col. Joshua Segraves:
So, when you think about readiness, child care provides a key facet of that readiness and how we take care of our soldiers, but also maintain our readiness to deploy worldwide at any given moment.
I think, without that, we would be significantly degraded in our ability to accomplish those missions.
As Congress contemplates a new role for the federal government and American child care, many experts say they should look to the military system, which has been called a model for the nation.
Patty Barron, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy: I don't think you can find much better than the military child care system.
Based at the Pentagon, Patty Barron oversees military child care policy. She says she's seen a need for quality child care throughout her life. A military spouse and mother of three, she came to the U.S. from El Salvador as a child and says her mom struggled to find child care.
She had to go to work every single day. What she went through to find child care for us was crazy, so much so that, at the age of 10, I was the one that was taking care of my brother and sister. And so, for me, it's very personal.
The federal government spends just over a billion dollars a year on the military's child care system, which serves 160,000 children from birth through 12 years of age.
Care is offered in a variety of settings, centers and homes on bases and also off-base at approved providers. It's not free. Parents pay a sliding fee based on their total family income. Since the 1970s, the number of service men and women with families has grown, and so has the need for more child care.
But in the early days, that care was not what it should have been, according to Barron.
There was no training. There was no development — developmentally appropriate training for the providers. But there were also some ugly things going on.
Poor conditions and cases of neglect and even abuse prompted sweeping reforms on Capitol Hill. In 1989, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act. The overhaul required the military to provide high-quality, affordable care for service members and for child care teachers to earn fair wages.
For the past three decades, Congress has supported funding for the military's child care system to meet the needs of service members and their families.
But outside the gates of Fort Belvoir and military installations around the country, the child care landscape looks very different for the rest of America's families.
Army Specialist Deja Lyles has experienced those differences.
Spc. Deja Lyles, U.S. Army:
I pay like a little over $400 a month, which isn't bad at all, because, in the civilian world, I as paying almost $300 a week for child care.
She's the mother of 5-year-old Paris (ph). She now uses Fort Belvoir's child care, but Paris started out in civilian care.
Spc. Deja Lyles:
I can see her education has changed because she's way more advanced now than she was prior to that, when she was in the civilian day care.
In the military, parents pay between about $2, 500 to $8, 300 a year per child, regardless of age. The government covers the rest. In the civilian world, center-based infant care ranges from about $9, 400 to more than $17,000 a year.
And in the military, starting wages for child care providers typically start around $28,000 and can go as high as $45,000. They also get benefits. Civilian child care providers earn on average about $24,000 a year, often without benefits.
Welcome to JoAnn Blanks Child Development Center.
I visited some of Fort Belvoir's five home-based family care providers and seven child development centers, including one of the Army's largest.
Leo Duran (ph) is the director of the JoAnn Blanks Center, which serves more than 280 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years.
We have diverse staffing here, which I love.
It is very important, because we also have very diverse families, and when we have teachers who can actually make that family more comforting to them when they know that we speak the language.
Teachers follow approved curriculum, and there are unannounced inspections several times a year.
Janet Evans is the chief of child and youth services at Fort Belvoir.
They are teachers. They're not baby-sitters. We develop individual training plans for them.
We have staff that come in brand-new with a teaching degree. And they would still have to have this same training with the Department of Defense, with the Army, for those meeting those training components on how we do it here, to define that quality.
We do continued education, training nonstop.
Tammy McGruder has been a lead teacher at Fort Belvoir for 19 years. She says, in addition to sharpening her professional skills, providing top-quality child care also means routine, safety and warmth.
I want to make sure that I can do the best I can and be a substitution for their mom and their dad for that eight hours or nine hours until they're able to get their child back in their arms. I want my kids to feel loved until mommy or daddy come back, and safe.
Military spouse Tabitha Stafford provides a different care option for families. She runs a small child care business in her home at Fort Belvoir.
Being a family child care provider is amazing. I get to do what I love to do, which is being with children.
But I also accommodate a lot for the needs of the children and their ages. So we do different activities according to what the children can do.
While the military child care system has largely addressed costs, quality and work force pay, it does share one challenge with the civilian world: access.
There are areas where the wait-lists care high. We need to take care of that. How are we going to take care of that? Either through new construction, public-private partnerships. That takes money.
Nationally, about 10,000 children of service members are on wait-lists for on-base care. And infant care, in particular, is a big need.
Trying to address some of those shortages, the military is launching a new pilot program in five regions to help military families pay for care providers in their own home. And new child care centers are now in the works on bases in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington state and California.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Barron says, although the system isn't perfect, she believes the investment in America's future is worth it.
I want people to have available, affordable, quality child care, especially our military families, because they deserve it, but as does everyone in the nation. We all deserve it.
When you think about children and you think about infants and Toddlers, that brain development, if we want a country that's going to be forward-leaning, that's going to have a strong economy, that's going to be to raise future scientists, and the cure of cancer might be out there, we have to invest in what's good for children at the very beginning of their lives.
For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Cat Wise at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
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Senior Producer, Field Segments
Kate McMahon is an award-winning producer, writer and director of documentary films, news, podcasts, print and digital stories who has received several awards and nominations for her work. Kate has contributed to more than 50 hours of national documentary and long-format news programming, primarily for PBS, since she began her career in 1998 as an Associate Producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Kate's recent work includes the ITVS short film The D.A's Dilemma (PBS, February 2021), a 4-part documentary series about behavioral science, Hacking Your Mind (PBS, September 2020); FRONTLINE: Coronavirus Pandemic (PBS, April, 2020) and three PBS NewsHour segments on the Oregon wildfires. She directs and co-produces documentaries for the PBS series FRONTLINE; independent films, digital channels and PBS stations. Outside of producing documentaries, Kate has produced and reported public radio programs for REVEAL, and written articles in Salem Reporter and Metro Parent Magazine.
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