On Wednesday, First Lady Jill Biden stood in a colorful preschool classroom at the Gateway Child Development Center inside San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base, as the young children of service members showed off their counting skills. Afterward, military staff and families joined Biden in a discussion about service members’ access to childcare, particularly for children with disabilities.
“Again and again in my travel to bases, I’ve heard that for families who have children with disabilities, it’s so difficult to get the support services that kids need when families move from duty station to duty station,” Biden said, referring to her travels with the Joining Forces program that she and former First Lady Michelle Obama started during the Obama administration.
The Gateway Child Development Center is one of seven childcare facilities run by Joint Base San Antonio, and serves approximately 250 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old. Of the more than 1 million active duty service members around the country, 43 percent have children. And of those children, about 42 percent are 5 years old and younger.
Military parents who secure childcare spots on base are lucky in some regards: their kids are close by, military child development centers often have more flexible hours than civilian daycares, and the parents pay fees along a sliding scale based on their rank and pay. However, service members must still face waiting lists to get their child a spot, with priority given to children with both parents in the military and to children of single parents.
Childcare for military families is an even greater challenge for those with children who have disabilities. The frequent moves required of service members take a toll on all families, but they can be especially hard when parents have to scramble to find specialized care for their kids each time they move.
“Relocating sometimes means regression, loss of progress, breaking service, sometimes even the need for surgery,” said Andres Rodriguez-Bolandi, a Sergeant First Class in the Army who’s a single father to a 5-year-old son with cerebral palsy and a brain condition called polymicrogyria. When they first moved to San Antonio, Rodriguez-Bolandi’s son went a full eight months without some of the services he needed.
The military does offer support through its Exceptional Family Members Program (EFMP), which was created to help service members with children, spouses or dependent parents who have disabilities or special educational and medical needs. Approximately 128,500 family members are enrolled in this program, which is meant to connect families with resources wherever they end up stationed.
Although the program has improved over time, many of the speakers at Wednesday’s event pointed to challenges that remain. Rodriguez-Bolandi said he was pleased with the support services his son was now getting through EFMP and the schools at Joint Base San Antonio, but called for a more fundamental change to the system. He asked that service members be assigned to one location for longer periods of time, to alleviate some of the difficulty of finding timely and consistent care for their children.
Biden expressed sympathy for his situation, particularly as a single parent. “I think your request is reasonable,” she said.
Patricia Barron, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, who traveled to San Antonio with the First Lady, said she would take Rodriguez-Bolandi’s concerns back to Washington, D.C. Barron did not make any concrete promises, but said in the meantime, “There’s been a lot of discussion about allowing people to stay in one place for longer periods of time, in a way that it won’t jeopardize their career progression.”
Biden’s visit comes on the heels of a childcare crisis for all families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has only amplified the difficulty American families have faced for decades in finding available, let alone affordable, childcare. President Biden’s Build Back Better plan was supposed to alleviate some of this pressure on parents, by expanding free public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and subsidizing the often astronomical costs of childcare for families making less than 250 percent of their state’s median income.
Of course, only the infrastructure bill has passed Congress, and many of the president’s proposals for social programs fell to the wayside. Now, military and civilian families alike are watching to see how much of the Bidens’ aspirations for children and families will come to pass over the next three years.
The First Lady praised the parents at Lackland Air Force Base for their strength, but acknowledged the government could do more to help. “Maybe you’re tired of always having to be resilient. If we could take some of your obstacles out of the way, if we could make sure that things like critical education support services are available to all children, military families would be able to do even more with your talent, your dedication, your leadership, and your skills,” she said. “I hope you feel hopeful after this visit.”