New center boosts child care capacity

Military: Experts say such family services help retain personnel in the post-draft era.

Fort Meade

October 05, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Officials at Fort Meade opened the newest of three child care centers on the sprawling Anne Arundel County base yesterday, an acknowledgement, experts say, of the realities of retaining soldiers in the post-draft era.

The Department of Defense operates the nation's largest child care system, at a cost of $392 million a year, Pentagon officials said.

With the end of conscription, "we know one of the major influences on whether people are retained in the military or not is their satisfaction and spouses' satisfaction with the support they're getting from the military," said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland.

The number of recent deployments has sharply increased the number of separations for military families, he said.

By January, nearly 300 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years are expected to use the $5.6 million Child Development Center III at Fort Meade. They will join 200,000 children enrolled nationwide in more than 800 military child development centers and 9,000 certified child care programs in private homes.

"Our force is no longer a force of draftees," said Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Richard. "A significant number of our military personnel are married, and that certainly provides the requirement that we provide them with a first-rate, world-class family support system that includes child care."

The Department of Defense considers strong, healthy families a key to mission readiness, particularly because both spouses are on active duty in many cases, he said.

Fort Meade's commander, Col. John W. Ives, said child care is one of many amenities soldiers consider when deciding whether to leave the military, he said, quoting a military saying: "You may enlist the soldier, but you re-enlist the family."

The new child care center fits the army's commitment to improving the availability, quality and management of such services as part of the Military Child Care Act of 1989, said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who attended yesterday's dedication ceremony at Fort Meade, which has more than 35,000 civilian and military personnel.

"Now the military child care program is considered the model in the nation," he said, pointing out that although 10 percent of child care for civilians is accredited, nearly all of the military centers are accredited.

The 5,000-acre base also includes the National Security Agency, whose employees also can use the child care centers.

In 2002, active-duty members of service had 1.2 million children, half of them younger than age 7, Segal said.

Because families consist of spouses, children and dependent parents, "basically [the military has] more family members than service people to support," Segal said. The Department of Defense takes more responsibility for family members than most civilian employers do, he said.

For humanitarian and pragmatic reasons, it makes sense for the military to provide child care, Segal said.

"We're asking our service personnel to put their lives on the line for what we're telling them is the national security interest of our country," he said. "We owe it to them to have some sense of comfort that their families left behind will be looked after."

Centers such as those at Fort Meade reduce the conflict between parental responsibility and military duty, said Martha L. McClary, the base's coordinator of child and family services.

"If parents don't feel comfortable about the quality of care or availability of care, they can't really concentrate on their job," she said.

By 2007, the Department of Defense will require bases to meet 80 percent of the demand for child care, she said.

Before spaces were offered at the Fort Meade center, 80 children 1 year old or younger at the base were waiting for care, she said. More than 400 had some form of child care but preferred to enroll in base services.

The cost of using the centers at Fort Meade varies with family income, but not with the age of the child. The average fee for child care on the base is about $368 a month, McClary said.

Parents receive discounts when enrolling more than one child or for volunteering on the center's parent advisory committees.

Like many child care facilities, the center has spaces to corral crawling children, child-size furniture in bright primary colors and playgrounds designed for various age groups.

The one-story building also includes anti-terrorism measures such as a phalanx of security cameras and a barricade of concrete planters and chain-link fences. It is situated away from the road.

Staff members are subject to background checks and must complete training, she said. Centers are subject to unannounced inspections by the Defense Department and must be accredited.

Inside, surveillance cameras placed in the ceiling tiles of the classrooms provide reassurance for parents who might experience separation anxiety. Footage can be recorded for review during training sessions, said Ethel White, director of the new center. Those picking up children will be identified when they swipe cards with magnetic stripes through a card reader.

"We consider this a safe haven for children," White said. Although anyone can drop off a child enrolled at the center, "we do mind who takes the children," she said.

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