Advocates Say More Change Is Needed After Pentagon Releases New Exceptional Family Member Plan

Family visits the Exceptional Family Member Program
Karla Kletzien and her sons draw on the pavement with chalk after visiting the resource booths at the Exceptional Family Member Program’s Chalk the Park meet-and-greet event Aug. 12, 2022, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. (U.S. Army photo by Charlotte Richter)

A new, and overdue, Pentagon policy update to a key program that provides necessary support for military families with special needs is a crucial step but ultimately falls short, according to some advocates.

The Exceptional Family Member Program, which connects military families with necessary resources for kids and adults who have special needs when they're stationed at a new base, varies wildly from service to service and base to base. Late last week, the Department of Defense released its own program in an effort to have more uniform standards for all branches.

But Partners in PROMISE, a nonprofit focused on special education issues for military families, said on its website that "the update is underwhelming" and noted more clarity was needed for military families.

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"It's a step in the right direction, but there's a lot that needs to be done," Michelle Norman, the founder and executive director of Partners in PROMISE, told in a phone interview on Tuesday.

A longstanding criticism of the Exceptional Family Member Program was that some families would receive extensive communication with legal and education experts who would provide help, while others would be left with almost no assistance at all, with the variability stemming from differences between the services and bases.

The Department of Defense’s new policy aimed to alleviate some of the wide ranging differences by setting one collective standard for all of the service branch’s programs.

Notable changes in the Department of Defense's Exceptional Family Member Program policy include using the same criteria for all services when determining what resources are available for families and the ability for service members to request a second review of base assignment decisions, according to the Pentagon's press release.

"This ensures the family's special needs are considered during the assignment process. 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," Tomeshia S. Barnes, associate director of DoD's Office of Special Needs, said in a press release. "Importantly, service members now learn the reason for declined orders."

Additionally, the policy lays out a requirement for annual check-ins with an Exceptional Family Member Program case manager and military families in the program.

But Partners in PROMISE said it's still unclear which officials are responsible for ensuring that appropriate special education resources are available at bases within the continental United States and that, overall, there is a lack of clarity on when and who will start many of the necessary conversations between bases and families when they're assigned to a new location under the program.

While Norman praised several changes in the Department of Defense's policy rollout, including increased communications between bases when a family that has special needs is being relocated, a lot is still unclear despite the new policy.

"That experience varies greatly for families, depending on which service branch you're in," Norman said. "In addition to the family support provided on those installations, ... and so when you read the [Pentagon instruction], there just needs to be some more clarification, because all it says is [to] collaborate together."

A 2018 Government Accountability Office report included criticism of the Exceptional Family Member Program, pointing out that support for military families with special needs "varies widely for each branch of Military Service."

A couple of years later, in 2020, Congress held a House Armed Services Committee Military Personnel hearing on the Exceptional Family Member Program, where family members spoke about their struggles with the program and advocated for the support they needed.

Following that hearing, in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated the Exceptional Family Member Program needed to be standardized.

While it has been more than two years since that law was signed, and the new standardized policy has finally been released, Pentagon officials acknowledged that work still needs to be done.

"We serve and work to continually update and enhance the EFMP policy," Barnes said in the press release.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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