Military families with special needs should expect more consistency and better support in the Exceptional Family Member Program in the wake of new Defense Department guidance.

All branches of the military offer an Exceptional Family Member Program, which includes a variety of personnel, medical and family support functions. About 110,000 active duty service members are enrolled. But up to now, each service established its own guidelines, and the rules could even differ from one installation to another in the same service.

As before, a service member’s enrollment in the EFMP is mandatory when a family member meets the enrollment criteria. But the updated DoD-wide policy not only standardizes those criteria, but also spells out the enrollment process.

For years, military families with special needs have detailed their problems with the availability and quality of medical care and special education. Following a February 2020 congressional hearing, lawmakers mandated EFMP standardization and improvements in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

“This is exciting news for families enrolled in EFMP,” said Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military and community family policy, in DoD’s announcement of the changes. “These enhancements demonstrate that we are listening and focusing on ways to help families thrive in military life.”

But some knowledgeable observers argue the new policy doesn’t go far enough.

Michelle Norman is executive director and founder of the nonprofit Partners in Promise, which works to protect the rights of military children in special education and disability communities to ensure they receive equal access to education.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize program variability, this instruction still puts many important decisions back in the hands of individual service branches,” she said.

But the new instruction is a step in the right direction, she added.

“We appreciate the hard work and many hours DoD and military service leaders poured into standardizing processes of the Exceptional Family Member Program,” Norman said.

One of its good points, she said, is requiring “warm hand-offs” during permanent change of station moves. The losing installation’s EFMP family support office hands off the family to the gaining installation’s office. That cooperative approach will, she hopes, decrease the wait times for specialized medical care and special education services and support after a PCS. Their 2022 survey data shows families are waiting more than four months for those services.

“However, we are disappointed to see the lack of standardization of special education support and resources that vary greatly between the military services,” Norman said. “Military children in special education face delays in identification, eligibility and receipt of special education support and services. EFMP parents face inconsistent support during every PCS.”

Norman said it’s “frustrating” that the instruction didn’t include requirements to collect and report data on special education disputes and their outcomes.

DoD officials say their work isn’t finished.

“Enrollment in EFMP provides families access to critical services and support, no matter their service branch or location. We will continue our work to enhance EFMP to better serve our military families,” said Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in the DoD announcement.

One of the improvements is in the assignment coordination process. The instruction lays out the responsibilities and processes of the services’ personnel offices, the designated EFMP staff and the service member.

“This ensures the family’s special needs are considered during the assignment process,” said Tomeshia S. Barnes, associate director of DoD’s Office of Special Needs, in the announcement. “Enhancements include each service branch using the same criteria for determining the availability of services and the ability for service members to request a second review of assignment decisions.

“Importantly, service members now learn the reason for declined orders,” Barnes said.

Other actions taken to standardize the rules include:

♦ At least one personal contact with every family must be completed each year by the EFMP family support provider assigned to them. All families using their service’s respite care program will also get at least one personal contact annually. These providers help families become their own advocates by helping them identify and connect with resources, expert consultants, and education and community support. The warm hand-off during PCS can’t be counted as the annual personal contact.

♦ Requirements for disenrolling a family from EFMP are spelled out.

♦ Respite care changes will be implemented in a phased approach. These include providing a consistent number of respite care hours across the services, which will mean hours will increase for some families and decrease for others, depending on the service branch. There’s also a standard mechanism for determining eligibility and how many hours. Adult dependents are now eligible for respite care. Families will also be able to ask for additional services based on exceptional circumstances.

The services won’t be allowed to limit the availability of the respite care benefit when eligible families are also receiving external respite care services.

The instruction notes that respite care is a program benefit, not an entitlement. The instruction requires the services to monitor the provision of respite to care to ensure the programs are compliant with DoD and service-specific policies.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize military service variability, we are hopeful that each military service takes to the opportunity to offer much needed clarification as they write their own instructions,” Norman said.

“At the end of the day, all EFMP families want is for the program to add value, not confusion.”

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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