Master Sgt. Kim Currier got lucky. Sort of.

Her 10-month old son, Casey, is easygoing and adapts well to strangers and new environments. But were Casey a typical infant with separation anxiety, Currier’s life — and her baby’s — might be hell.

There’s no room for Casey at the three child development centers on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, where both Currier and her active-duty husband, pararescueman Master Sgt. Don Currier, hold Air Force jobs.

Since arriving Jan. 7, she’s juggled, searched and pleaded to find child care for Casey during the duty day. She’s sent him to three baby-sitters and each of the base-sponsored child development centers for a week or two at a time, leasing slots from families on vacation. Casey has been on the CDC waiting list since early December, when the Curriers received their orders to Kadena.

“The first two weeks I could not find anybody,” Currier said. “In the interim, since I was still in-processing, I took my child with me. I was desperate.”

The Defense Department child-care program Currier struggles to access has been characterized by outside experts as a model system, keeping strict standards and oversight and requiring extensive training for its providers. Yet families can find themselves locked out of a good thing because the system at some installations isn’t large enough to meet demand, and military budgets in some areas are inadequate to erase the shortage.

“It’s a national challenge, as well as a department challenge, to find enough quality spaces for everybody,” said Jan Witte, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Children and Youth.

Model system — but 38,000 spaces short

Throughout the DOD in the United States, Europe and the Pacific, Witte said, the system is short 38,000 spaces to serve parents who need child care the most: Working families, including dual active-duty families and single servicemembers and civilians.

Though the shortfall includes spaces for children from birth to 12, Witte said the greatest need is for child care such as Currier seeks: for infants and toddlers. Care for these ages “is very limited and very expensive outside the military system” everywhere, Witte said.

In the Pacific, choices can be especially limited.

In Japan and South Korea, not all off-post day-care centers allow American children, and some parents say cultural and language differences leave them hesitant to consider those that do.

Many DOD overseas centers struggle with staff turnover, base child-care officials report. Unable to tap deeply into the host country’s workforce, facilities employ military spouses who often move every three years. The DOD’s strict provider-to-child ratios mean that without the required staff, children may be turned away.

DOD-certified in-home providers — often the only alternative to on-base child-care centers — also are too few to keep up with demand, say most Pacific child-care directors. The need is particularly acute for infants. At some bases babies have been stuck on waiting lists for eight months or more.

One anonymous parent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, preparing in December to return to work after maternity leave, took to the commander’s Action Line to plead: “It seems like we have exhausted our options, and we still don’t have a baby sitter. … The lack of, or the alarming shortage of, child care [for infants] is a serious issue for working parents.”

The price for care

Fifteen years ago, the military’s child-care system was so papered with allegations of abuse and poor conditions that Congress in 1989 mandated a systematic revamp. The Military Child Care Act, Witte said, significantly increased funding and boosted training and pay. The system now is “a model of quality care at an affordable price,” says a July 2003 report from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.

The DOD sets the price range each service must charge for child care. Fees are based on total family income, to include allowances for housing but not cost of living. Installations may set the cost for each income category within the DOD range, and local commanders have the option to give a 10-percent discount for siblings if it’s within their service guidance, according to DOD officials.

At Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, a family earning up to $28,000 a year, for example, would pay $57 a week for a space at the CDC, and $119 a week if earning more than $70,000. Those same slots at Misawa Air Base, Japan, would cost $59.25 and $130.50 a week, respectively, per child.

But while the military has worked hard to revamp its child care and make it affordable for all families, such programs still benefit only those who can access them. At any given time, bases throughout the Pacific may lack space to accommodate every child who needs care — which the military defines as those from families with single parents, two active-duty servicemembers or stateside civilian DOD employees.

Waiting-list woes

Other families often are caught in a no-win situation: A spouse may want to work but with one parent unemployed, the family falls toward the bottom of the waiting list, forcing the spouse to stay home until care is available.

Marine Sgt. Clyde Pope, a Marine liaison at U.S. Naval Hospital on Camp Lester, Okinawa, said his wife lost out on a job nearly two years ago while waiting for a spot to open for their toddler son at Camp Foster’s CDC. She couldn’t accept the job without child care, Pope said: “We didn’t have anywhere for him to go.”

After more than four months of waiting for a CDC spot and uninterested in using a home-care provider, Pope said he gave up.

“I just told them to take me off the waiting list,” he said. “They told me I had a couple hundred [people] in front of me.”

Marisa Miller, a military wife at Yokosuka’s Negishi housing area, said she would like to work more hours than just her four nights a week at Negishi Club, but finding care for her 2½-year-old daughter is difficult: “I just don’t have anybody on base that I can say, ‘Hey, can you take my daughter?’ ”

Colette Cronin, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher at Yokota Air Base, Japan, started paying for child care 10 months before bringing her adopted son home from Guatemala in 2002.

“I paid in order to keep my spot,” she said. As a single parent, Cronin said her priority was lower than families with single or dual active-duty parents.

She was offered a spot twice — but turned it down twice because Kevin, her to-be-adopted son, hadn’t yet arrived. Turning it down a third time could have kicked her name to the bottom of the list, she said. So she paid $250 a month to ensure him a space at Kibo Child Development Center.

“I couldn’t afford to say no,” she said.

The timing was much better for Cronin’s second child, adopted last year — and she’s pleased with the care her children receive at CDC. But the process of getting them in, she recalled, was fraught with anxiety.

“You’re not only worried about your children coming home and bonding with them, getting on with life,” she said, “but there’s the added stress of, is there really going to be a spot for them?”

What causes a crunch

Whether DOD parents undergo such uncertainty can hinge on circumstances beyond their control, such as where they’re posted and when, or whether there’s been a recent baby boom.

At Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo, for instance, 40 children — most of them infants and none of them from working families with top priority for a CDC slot — awaited care in late March.

More babies tend to be born after spouses return from long deployments, said Kathryn Hardebeck, Child Development Program administrator for Command Fleet Activities, Yokosuka.

“We have a war going on now, so we’re seeing that more,” she said.

But at bases such as Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Sasebo Naval Base in southern Japan, there’s room for everyone, including infants.

“In Sasebo, a lot of spouses decide not to go back to work,” easing the need for child care, said Laura Knutson, Morale, Welfare and Recreation child care director. “We’re a small base, so there’s not a lot of jobs for them to find.”

Where there is a crunch, officials appear to be working hard to ease it.

At Kadena, for instance, about 85 children between ages 6 weeks and 5 years are waiting to get into one of the child development centers — 44 are categorized as needing care because their parents work, and the rest have a parent at home.

“Within the last year, we’ve cut the waiting list by more than 50 percent by opening up every possible classroom and fully staffing every building,” said Kathleen Hartwell, Family Member Programs flight chief at Kadena’s 18th Services Squadron.

Families whose children can’t get into a CDC at Kadena are referred to Family Child Care, a network of licensed, on-base, in-home providers.

Kadena has 30 licensed child-care homes that can accommodate 140 children, Hartwell said.

But home day-care slots for infants at many Pacific bases are scarce. Each service limits the number of infants that can be in a home at one time. In the Air Force, for instance, providers may watch up to six children up to 8 years of age, with no more than two younger than 2, including one’s own children.

Currier, the Kadena master sergeant, called on a list of 15 to 20 providers her first week at Kadena but found none who could care for her baby at the time. She’ll have to start making those calls again when Casey’s two-week leased slot is up at the CDC. Her husband is deployed — “if I don’t find anything,” she said, “I’m going to have to take leave.”

Supply and demand

The demand for military child care isn’t expected to ebb any time soon. Most in uniform are younger than 35; almost half are younger than 25, according to the National Military Family Association, a private advocacy group. More than half are married and 44 percent have children — most of those children are 12 or younger. Also, according to NMFA, military families are larger than their civilian counterparts; in four of five, the nonservicemember spouse also works.

Though the number of child-care centers has increased steadily in recent years, “the demand keeps outpacing the supply,” said Joyce Wessel Raezer, NMFA government relations director.

Only three new child development centers are budgeted for fiscal 2005, said the DOD’s Witte. Only one of those is planned for overseas — in Germany. In fiscal 2006, only Fort Myer, Va., near the Pentagon, is slated for a new facility.

“At one time,” Witte said, “10 centers were built in a year.”

Pacific Air Forces officials say, however, that the Air Force has 14 CDC projects in development for fiscal years 2006 to 2011 to reduce the servicewide waiting list of 8,000 by 6,000, to 2,000 spaces. PACAF officials said Pacific air bases provide more than 3,000 spaces a day, with a waiting list of only 150 children.

In Japan, however, additional CDC construction funds are available from the Japanese government.

The alternatives

But a CDC slot or daytime in-home care aren’t the perfect solutions for every working parent.

“The deployment issue has changed the type of child care a lot of people want and need,” Raezer said. “It’s created additional demand for respite care, hourly care, because that spouse doesn’t have the other servicemember home.”

“The system is still pretty focused on centers,” said Gail Zellman, a senior research psychologist with the RAND Corp. policy research institute.

“I think parents prefer centers — they seem safer, are prettier, have more playground space ... but they may not be the best choice in terms of covering work.”

In response, the services are increasing nontraditional child-care options.

PACAF, for instance, contracts with certified in-home providers to watch children overnight, on weekends and during exercises and deployments.

Parents pay the same sliding-scale fees as at the CDC and the Air Force makes up the difference, said Lee Tomlinson, PACAF chief of family member programs. In January alone, Kadena requested money toward paying for more than 900 hours spent helping families with a servicemember deployed for South Asia tsunami relief, Tomlinson said.

But in-home care providers are key to such programs — and they are also in demand at many Pacific bases.

“We need more family child-care homes on Kadena to provide care for the children of shift workers and those with nontraditional workweeks,” Hartwell said.

Some locations are losing family and center child-care providers or can’t hire enough of them, in part due to high operations tempo and deployments, Raezer said.

Camp Zama, where officials project an increased child-care need due to normal permanent-change-of-station moves, is actively recruiting home day-care providers but none yet are certified.

“It’s difficult to find people” because in Japan, job-seekers often find it easy to get lucrative work teaching English, said Paula Harding, Camp Zama Children and Youth Services coordinator.

Raezer said the military needs to find ways to recruit and retain more in-home providers.

Some bases already are making that effort: At Yokosuka Naval Base, in-home providers can make more money if they take care of infants. In 2004, the Air Force began subsidizing the child-care cost for parents on the CDC waiting list who were using the more expensive family child-care programs, PACAF officials said. Parents in the program pay the same rate to the family child-care provider as they would if they were using the on-base CDC, annually saving parents Air Force-wide $150,000 a month, according to PACAF officials.

Outside the box

The DOD also is starting to think outside the box when it comes to finding child care for its members.

A new DOD initiative, Operation Military Child Care, gives all mobilized or deployed military parents access to government-subsidized, high-quality child care by providing referrals and discounts to licensed civilian centers when space is unavailable on post.

Raezer acknowledged that’s “more difficult overseas,” where standards at off-base centers differ and availability can be uncertain, “but I think we need to start looking at that.”

Military transformation and permanent movement of troops will only tax the system more, she said. “The Navy’s going to have some of these issues in Guam” as it looks to increase its presence there, “and I know a lot of the command in Korea wants to bring more families to Korea. One of the first things that has to be done in that whole process is finding more money for child-care centers.”

But new centers aren’t the answer for every base. “Our centers accommodate 272 apiece,” said Kadena’s Hartwell. With a waiting list of just 44, “I don’t think we can begin to demonstrate a need for another center. You have to be able to demonstrate that we could fill that center.”

See related content:

¶ In-home child care helps fill in gaps

¶ When available, base care is top-notch

¶ Base-by-base status report for child care in the Pacific

How to up your odds

Expecting? PCSing with young children? Word of advice: Call the military Child Development Center to check on available spaces and get on the waiting list as soon as possible, if there is one, say Pacific child-care officials.

“The sooner you get on, the better,” said Kathryn Hardebeck, Child Development Program administrator for Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka.

Parents can get on the waiting list when they know they’re expecting or when they receive orders to their next base. Single or dual active-duty families always have top priority and can move ahead of lesser priority families who signed up for care first, officials said. But within the same priority group, an earlier sign-up date gets one’s child in the door quicker.

In the near future, parents at Navy bases should be able to sign up for care online, Hardebeck said.

— Stars and Stripes

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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