Defense Department Tops Nation in Child Care Efforts

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2007 - Child care is a critical issue for many families around the country, and the Defense Department stands alone as a model for quality child care in the nation, an independent study released today finds.

In the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies' ranking of state child care centers and oversight, which was presented to Congress this morning, DoD ranks No. 1 on the list of states with the best child care center standards and oversight practices. DoD was ranked along with all 50 states in a process that compared the written policies of each of the states and DoD with basic quality indicators in child care.

DoD was the only state to appear on the top 10 lists in both child care center standards and oversight standards.

"No other state scored in the top 10 in both of those categories, so we're very, very pleased with our results," Barbara Thompson, director of children and youth issues for the DoD Office of Military Community and Family Policy, said in an interview. "This is something that we've been working for ... since the inception of the Military Child Care Act in 1989, and it shows that our system of care is really working, and it is providing safe, healthy and developmentally appropriate programs for young children."

The report lauded DoD for requiring child care center directors to have a bachelor's degree or higher; training child care staff in first aid, CPR and other health and safety issues; and requiring staff to pursue further training. The report also highlighted the fact that DoD conducts criminal history record checks, child abuse and neglect registry checks, and state, federal and fingerprint checks. DoD's health and safety requirements for child care address nine of the 10 basic standards, such as immunization, fire drills and emergency preparedness.

One of the reasons DoD scored so high is the strong system of child care the department has, including child care centers, family child care homes, and school-age programs, Thompson said. The staff members in this system are all trained to the same standards, which include a self-paced modular program based on the competencies for earning a child development associates degree, she said. Supervisors do knowledge assessments to ensure what staff members learned in this program is applied in the classroom, she said. Staff members are encouraged to continue their education, and their pay is dependent on education, experience and performance, she added.

Another thing DoD was lauded for in the report is its extensive oversight system of child care centers, Thompson said. All child care programs are required to have four comprehensive inspections every year. The programs receive an inspection report, and any problems identified must be fixed within 90 days, she said.

"The department recognized early on that in order to have high levels of safety and health standards in our program, we needed a system to assess it, making sure that the standards were in compliance and if not, what would be the remedial action to correct it and move on," Thompson said.

As is noted in the report, the first five years of a child's life are the most critical in development. This is when the child's brain is forming and social and emotional ties are developed, so quality child care is critical in shaping the person the child will become, Thompson said. She noted that military life offers unique stressors, such as deployments and frequent moves, which make continuity of care important.

"(Parents) knowing that they have a stable early childhood program as they relocate, I think it really is one of those stress reducers," she said. "You know the level of quality you're going to receive as you go to your next installation; you know more or less what the price range is going to be; you know that the staff are going to be trained in a uniformed way; you know that those programs are going to be inspected four times a year. There are requirements that we enforce across the services to ensure that there is a standardized level of high quality."

Still, she said, "We can do better." Thompson said DoD is always reviewing child care practices and looking for areas for improvement. "It's a never-ending process, because we learn more and more about what it takes for young children to thrive," she said.

In the report, DoD was only given partial credit for literacy and cultural diversity activities. Thompson said that many DoD child care centers do these activities, but they are not yet included in the written policies.

"It is my goal that in the next year we look at our instruction to update the policies to reflect what we're actually doing and ensuring that we're capturing those indicators of quality," she said.

Another improvement DoD plans to make in its child care system is reviewing sex offender registries as part of the background checks for employees, Thompson said. This will add to the already extensive process DoD uses to prevent child abuse, which includes closed-circuit television systems in all child care centers, and policies that require two or more staff members to be with children at all times.

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