Children take part in the Teddy Bear Picnic at the Child Development Center Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in April, 2019.

Children take part in the Teddy Bear Picnic at the Child Development Center Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in April, 2019. (Erick Requadt/U.S.Air Force)

This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See the list of stories here.

WASHINGTON — After Navy spouse Samantha Wilson moved from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state in November 2018, she landed a job but needed child care for her 1-year-old daughter.

She signed up on the Defense Department’s, but the website estimated it would take a year before her daughter, Emilia, could get a full-time spot at the base’s Child Development Center.

While Wilson was able to find a day care off base, the unsubsidized $1,200 per month cost forced her to make hard choices and defer paying down her student loans. The expensive day care, she said, was not even highly rated.

“I didn’t trust the day care, but it was day care,” she said. “They were able to have her all day.”

In February, Wilson was able to place her daughter at a home-based day care approved and subsidized by the military.

“It was a tough four months,” she said.

Military families face specific challenges to find available, affordable, high-quality child care. They frequently move, face job uncertainty for civilian spouses and often live in locations far from family support.

The military child care system meant to support these families is overwhelmed by the demand. Military child care centers can be at capacity, have too few employees or both.

A new law addresses some of the most pressing issues for 2020, including capacity and hiring, and authorizes $121 million for construction at military child care centers.

The Navy is one of the hardest hit services, due in part because many bases are located near major population centers that have their own child-care shortages and high costs. The Navy’s Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith said in February that the service has a deficit of about 8,000 spaces, nearly 54% of the overall DOD shortfall.

In the past year, the Navy has increased the number of spots at Child Development Centers by about 1,000, according to Vice Adm. John Nowell, chief of naval personnel.

“Our problem is that the demand ... has grown by about ... 5,000 to 6,000,” he said.

Navy Fleet Master Chief Wes Koshoffer said in November that the Navy will add 1,000 spots in 2020.

“This is a nationwide challenge, but as the Navy has a dominant footprint in some of the most severely impacted areas, we are the hardest hit,” he said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Adding to the struggle for all military families are deployments that leave a working civilian spouse to struggle to get a child to and from day care. Long, nontraditional military work hours don’t often match those of day care centers.

Representatives on Capitol Hill questioned military leaders last year during committee hearings about child-care issues and possible solutions.

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law Dec. 20, requires a comprehensive assessment of child care capacity at military installations to identify and fix waitlist backlogs.

The law also authorizes direct hiring of Child Development Center staff and makes background investigations and training certifications for providers transferrable between installations. This would help military spouses who are day care staffers when they move to a new base, and it will help child development centers staff more quickly.

Within 90 days of the bill’s enactment, service secretaries must submit to Congress a report on child care development center projects that need to be funded. The NDAA authorized military construction funds for child development centers for each service: $27 million to the Army, $62.4 million to the Navy and $31.5 million to the Air Force.

The services must spend the money to “alleviate issues with the condition and capacity of child development centers in support of military families,” the NDAA says. Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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