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GAO calls for better screening of military special-needs children

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Ineffective screening of military families with special-needs children is straining resources at overseas U.S. base schools, according to a just-released General Accountability Office report.

The GAO report also concluded that a lack of uniform benchmarks across the services made it difficult to gauge the performance of exceptional family member programs, which started with the Army in 1978 and spread to the other services.

Servicemembers and civilians who have children with special needs are required to get an educational and medical screening before relocating. However, senior officials with the Defense Department’s recently established Office of Special Needs say only half of qualifying military families enroll their children in the assessment program.

Of DODEA’s approximately 85,000 students worldwide, 10,212 children are receiving special education.

“Each year, some military families with children with special educational needs are sent to locations that are not prepared to serve their children’s needs upon arrival,” the GAO study noted.

It cited three primary reasons: the military overrides the school system’s screening recommendation, the servicemember gets approved for one station and is reassigned elsewhere, or the screening procedure fails to measure the severity of the child’s needs.

School officials in Naples, Italy, said that of 44 students with special needs who showed up in recent years, only four had been screened.

While reasons for not enrolling in the program vary, one likely culprit is the disparity in medical and educational services available at different bases. A screening decision — whether a parent agrees with it or not — could prevent a servicemember from moving on to an assignment that might be key to promotion prospects.

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Office of Special Needs officials “believe that a fair number of families intentionally opt not to enroll in the [exceptional family member] program because some are concerned that enrollment may adversely affect servicemembers’ careers,” the report said.

The most prevalent special education services include speech and language therapy, developmental delays and learning disabilities. More severe disabilities may require unprepared schools to overload therapists with new cases or shift funding from other departments, according to the report.

A Navy special needs program official told the GAO that improperly screened children could cost the military up to $100,000 per incident.

GAO investigators met with officials from 15 schools and conducted 22 focus group meetings with parents.

Overseas site visits included Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases, and Army garrisons Baumholder and Kaiserslautern in Germany. Investigators also visited a Navy installation in Naples and conducted a video teleconference with a school at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

Parents told investigators that the quality of services they received in DOD schools was generally superior to those found in U.S. public schools. However, parents in the majority of focus groups said they had difficulty obtaining services, especially at overseas schools.

DOD officials partially agreed with the GAO’s recommendations on setting servicewide benchmarks and tightening oversight. The Office of Special Needs is in the first year of an analysis that would eventually set those benchmarks, according to the response.

While the Office of Special Needs won’t gain enhanced enforcement authority — as the GAO recommended — the office can report non-compliance to the appropriate assistant secretary of defense.

Charles Milam, director of DOD military community and family policy, wrote that the study’s small sample size of parents “indicated the need for caution in drawing conclusions about accessibility of services,” according to an August memo.

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

 

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