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How to Find a Military Daycare

A military daycare worker read to children at a Fort Drum, New York, child development center. Michelle Kennedy/U.S. Army
A military daycare worker read to children at a Fort Drum, New York, child development center. Michelle Kennedy/U.S. Army

Your household goods have (finally!) arrived, a new neighbor has already dropped by with brownies -- and agreed to be the emergency contact for your children -- and you've happily realized that some of your old curtains are actually going to fit your new windows. All that remains for you to feel halfway human again is to find a daycare.

All. As if it were that simple.

Whether you need full daycare, a structured preschool, occasional babysitting, or just a few hours' break from your kids each week, one of the more stress-inducing aspects of military life is finding someone you can trust, in a city full of strangers, to watch the little people you love more than life itself. You're not going to leave them with just anyone, but you're new to the area, so where do you start?

As Amy Bushatz recently wrote in this Military.com SpouseBuzz blog post:

"You're probably familiar with how the process currently work. ... You call the Parent Central Services office (or show up in person) to be placed on the waiting list. They give you a printout of names, addresses and phone numbers for off-base centers and in-home providers who may or may not take children the age of your child and who may or may not have room for your kid. The only way to find out is by calling each of them, one by one, and asking -- or leaving a message and waiting for a call back.

In other words, not fun. And probably not something you're particularly excited about doing, what with all those unpacked boxes and restless children running around.

The Child Development Centers (CDCs) on military installations are a popular option, and one people inside and outside of our community often laud as being an excellent benefit. Unfortunately, on some installations, your odds of getting a spot in the CDC are worse than your odds of landing a front row parking space at the commissary on payday.

Katie Foley, a Marine Corps spouse currently living in College Station, Texas, said that the waiting lists for the CDCs on Camp Pendleton, California, were so long that by the time her sons' names came up on one of the lists, their family had already moved -- to Texas. Likewise, the waitlist when they lived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was similarly long and her family opted to share a nanny with another family so that she could work.

A recent survey of military families by the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) found this to be true for military families everywhere. [Full Disclosure: Rebekah Sanderlin serves as an unpaid adviser to MFAN and assisted with the survey.]

"The need for childcare was an issue that cropped up in several areas of our survey," said Shelley Kimball, Ph.D., primary investigator for the Military Family Support Programming Survey. "Our participants said one of the supports they need most is childcare. Moving so often makes it difficult to find reliable, safe childcare when military families need it. And if they do have a Child Development Center nearby, some are facing waitlists of a year."

Kimball noted that survey respondents said the lack of childcare made it difficult for military spouses to achieve their personal goals -- things like working or pursuing higher education -- without someone to watch their children.

"They can't go to doctor's appointments, they can't attend resiliency training, they can't get to the gym. For our participants, it affected so many areas of their daily lives when they could not find the help they needed," Kimball said.

But you already knew that, didn't you?

And now Congress knows it, too. The recent 300-page report from the congressionally appointed Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) got specific about just how hard it can be to score a spot in a CDC. 

To quote the report:

"Military child care is widely acclaimed for its quality and affordability, but is frequently a source of frustration for military families because of its limited availability. While not intended to serve the needs of all military children and families, DoD child care is often the preferred option for military families, addressing the unique challenges of military lifestyles, and providing support that can be critical to the psychological and financial health of the families who need it most. These effects can be amplified if Service members are frequently relocated to meet the needs of the Military Services, and repeatedly end up at the bottom of long waiting lists with waiting times that consume a substantial portion of their period of assignment.

…When military child care is requested but not available, the child is placed on a waiting list and assigned a priority based on the status of the family's sponsors. As of September 2014, DoD reported that there were more than 11,000 children on waiting lists."

Eleven. Thousand.

MCRMC recommended in the report that DoD expand current facilities to make room for more kids in some areas and that the system be better monitored so that waiting times are better tracked. Eventually, they aim for childcare to be provided to those who request it within 90 days of making the request. But even if Congress decides to follow MCRMC's recommendations, change is still a long way away.

Enter MilitaryChildCare.com. A new, DoD-run website that Bushatz describes as "shockingly awesome" ... except that it won't be available to everyone until 2016. Still, new installations will be consistently added to the site until then, so it's definitely worth checking to see if yours is up and running. The site, a portal, allows you to enter your location and view a list of providers, including daycare centers on and off base and in-home care, that have positions open.

So your CDC is full and you, like Katie Foley, might be half a continent away by the time your name comes up on the list. What do you do in the meantime?

You'll likely get, either from MilitaryChildCare.com or from Parent Central Services or a similar office, a list of childcare providers that includes in-home providers, often military spouses who live on or near the installation. Maybe you'll get lucky and know one or two people there who can recommend one of those providers.

Dori Spaulding, an Air Force spouse, now at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, had her three-year-old son Ollie enrolled in a CDC when they lived at Edwards Air Force Base, California, but Ollie's numerous food allergies made it difficult for him to continue going there (because the CDC provides food for the children who attend). Some friends recommended an in-home provider who was on the base's approved provider list.

"She was nice," Spaulding said. "I visited her home, and I knew that he would be with other kids we knew. We enjoyed the smaller setting. It was set up like a preschool."

But if you aren't lucky enough to get word-of-mouth recommendations for a place with an opening, you'll have to rely on your own efforts and instincts to determine if a provider is the right one for you.

Daycare.com, a commercial website that is not affiliated with DoD, has a rather limited list of providers, but does feature state-by-state information on how providers are licensed. You can start by educating yourself there. Then narrow the list to the ones nearest your home or work and Google the names of the providers to see if you turn up anything particularly great -- or awful.

Then just stop by for a visit.

A good daycare won't mind you showing up unannounced. The director probably won't have time to meet with you, you'll probably have to schedule an appointment for that. But she shouldn't mind you dropping by unannounced.

Make sure the facilities look clean and safe. Do the children seem happy and the staff members seem friendly? When you do get to interview the director, ask her about staff to child ratios and the school's philosophy on educating students. Make sure their philosophy matches your own.

But most importantly, just trust your instincts. If something seems off, keep looking.

Some useful links:

Sittercity's military program

MilitaryChildCare.com -- DoD's "shockingly awesome" new program

Care.com's military program

ChildCare Aware of America

ChildCare Aware of America's guide to military fee assistance eligibility

Military.com's List of Military Childcare Resources

GSA's ChildCare Provider Directory Listing

Related Topics

Rebekah Sanderlin Military Parenting

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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