A pilot program that aims to give military families another option for obtaining scarce childcare is slowly getting off the ground.

The Defense Department’s In-Home Child Care Fee Assistance Pilot, available in five regions of the country since last summer, provides monetary assistance to help military families pay for a childcare provider in their own home. But to date, just five families are actively participating in it.

Another 43 families have childcare providers who are in the final process of completing their background checks and initial training, said DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence.

The test program was authorized by Congress as one option to help ease the critical shortage of childcare for military families.

Meanwhile, defense officials are working with the services “to review the current program and determine the way forward for the second year of the pilot,” Lawrence said.

“We are particularly focused on identifying improvements to the length of time it takes families and providers to complete the program requirements and begin receiving fee assistance,” she said. Providers must meet DoD’s requirements, which can be found on MilitaryChildCare.com.

Officials have increased the amount of monetary assistance available to families and improved its communications with families to make it easier for them to understand how it works and make informed decisions, she said.

Asked if the program will be expanded to other areas, as authorized by Congress, she said DoD “will continue to focus expansion efforts on installations with a high demand for childcare and with unique mission-related requirements.”

In the first year, there are 250 slots available across the five regions and there have been 2,174 requests for assistance, Lawrence said. The third-party administrator, Child Care Aware of America, on July 6 started contacting parents who had requested the assistance with offers to participate.

Those 250 spaces have been allotted to the five regions as follows:

  • Hawaii, 30 spaces
  • National Capital Region, 50 spaces
  • Norfolk, Virginia, 70 spaces
  • San Antonio, Texas, 30 spaces
  • San Diego, California, 70 spaces

Out of those 2,174 requests, the program made 1,226 offers to families, but only 220 families have accepted the offers and are moving through the process to receive fee assistance, Lawrence said. More than half of those are Navy families:

  • Navy, 116
  • Air Force, 51
  • Army, 27
  • Marine Corps, 26

Child Care Aware is continuing to make offers and work with interested families for those 30 remaining slots. Information was not available from DoD about why just 220 families had accepted the offers.

“The fact that only 220 families have accepted the offers just feels strange to me,” said Nicole Russell, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. “We know, because we’ve heard from so many military families, that they would use this in-your-home childcare.”

That’s also borne out by the fact that 1,487 military families in those five regions have active requests and are on the waiting list for the pilot at MilitaryChildCare.com.

Russell questions whether the process for vetting the childcare providers is too burdensome. The military childcare fee assistance program in general is a complicated process, she said.

Lawrence said some families have expressed concern about the high cost to employ in-home childcare providers, even with fee assistance. “Many times, in-home childcare provider fees are higher than what a family would pay for childcare services at their installation’s child development center or in a family childcare home,” she said.

Some families were having trouble finding a childcare provider because of the nationwide shortage.

“One parent suggested the department simplify the information shared, so families could better understand the program and the requirements to employ an in-home childcare provider,” she said.

Defense officials have made some changes to the pilot program, including increasing the amount of fee assistance for which a family is eligible, Lawrence said. They have also implemented a monthly per-child provider rate cap comparable to the traditional community-based fee assistance program, she said. Lawrence said.

The amount of fee assistance a family may receive varies based on a number of factors, Lawrence said, including total family income and the corresponding fee for a child in the military childcare system, the number of children receiving care, the provider’s rate, and the monthly per-child rate cap.

“At a minimum, families are responsible for paying their military childcare fee for each child in care,” Lawrence said. The military childcare fee is equal to what they would pay in a military child development center.

The pilot program operates much like the long-running childcare fee assistance program for community-based care, which is aimed at service members who don’t have access to care at a military installation, and is also administered by Child Care Aware.

Russell said NMFA has talked with Child Care Aware about improving the user experience within the program. In many cases, she said, “You’re talking about a young service member who is a few years out of high school, trying to navigate this process. I wonder if this is deterring people who truly need this financial assistance from coming into the program.”

She noted that there’s a demand for this program outside those five test areas.

“We’d like to see it expanded,” she said. “There absolutely needs to be more spaces for families. … There are childcare deserts in a lot of places, and the lack of childcare workers is still plaguing the childcare industry right now.”

Lawrence said defense officials have improved the family communications provided through MilitaryChildCare.com, which is where military families go to request all childcare, including participation in this pilot program. The website links to information about the in-home care program, including information on eligibility, parent responsibilities, provider responsibilities and other information.

One option for families to use to search for their provider is an expanded childcare service available at no cost to military families through MilitaryOneSource.mil. DoD pays the fee for military families to search for the provider in their area; families pay the provider.

“Families should determine if this type of program is the right fit for their childcare needs,” Lawrence said.

As the pilot continues, she said, DoD “continues to capture lessons learned, and reassess the program to better meet the needs of families.”

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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