During the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges faced by service members and their families in getting child care demonstrated just how important child care is to the military mission. And now the department is working hard to find new ways to ensure that those who need child care can get it, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy said.
"What the pandemic did, and what it showed us was that child care is not just a 'nice to have,'" Patricia Barron, who spoke on Tuesday as part of the Association of the U.S. Army's "Thought Leaders" seminar, said. "You've got to have it. If you're going to go to work, you've got to have your child care in place."
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks has challenged the department, and MC&FP to uncover new and innovative ways to expand access to quality affordable child care for military families, Barron said.
"We've been working really hard on what that could look like," she said. "And we've had a couple of things that I'm very, very proud of."
Earlier this year, Barron said, the department kicked off a pilot program that allows military families to seek in-home child care providers, and the department will help pay for the cost.
"Now you can hire someone that comes into your home. They still need to be vetted, and still kind of have to go through the process that we would if we were to hire anybody to work in our centers. But you hire someone that comes into your home. And we will provide you with fee assistance to help pay for their salary," Barron said, adding she hopes the program will be expanded next year.
Barron also highlighted the DOD's "Military Child Care in your Neighborhood +" effort, which aims to get more child care providers eligible for fee-assistance by the DOD. Right now that effort is underway in Maryland and Virginia, but Barron said the program is expanding into other states as well.
"That'll provide more opportunities for access to fee assistance," she said.
For parents needing short-term child care — such as a babysitter — Barron said the DOD has partnered with "Sittercity."
"If you go on to Military OneSource, we have waived the registration fee," she said. "You can go right into the portal there and you can put in your information and a list of people will come up — and of course it's up to you to talk to them and vet them and all of that. But they've had their background checks done."
Barron said both the DOD and the services are working hard to improve access to child care for military service members and their families.
"There's just never enough child care, because we have a young force," she said. "You know, we're always going to have young people coming in, we're always going to have babies ... and children."