Military Child Care’s Modest Beginning
Military child care had a modest and humble beginning compared to the world-class child and youth care system it is today. Families started the first military child care system out of necessity because there were limited options available to them. Beginning in the 1950s, military child care services were organized through informal groups of military wives or parent cooperatives. The first military child care “system” lacked any official structure, and was essentially an hourly babysitting service for spouses who were working outside the home and parents who wanted socialization opportunities for their children.
More than two decades later, the Department of Defense (DoD) mandated that child care be officially recognized as a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) activity. Yet, there was still no requirement that a formal child care program be implemented at individual military installations. Installations that chose to provide child care services were required to develop their own operating policies and procedures.
The need for military child care grew rapidly, especially during the post-Vietnam War years. More military spouses worked outside the home, and the number of women in the armed services grew, as did the number of dual-military couples. These societal changes placed additional stress on the military child care system, which at that time lacked the capacity and quality necessary to serve the growing numbers of families who desperately needed child care.
The Military Child Care Act of 1989 (MCCA)
Congress passed the Military Child Care Act of 1989 (MCCA) in response to great concern over the lack of quality child care available for military families. A 1982 report (Military Child Care Programs: Progress Made, More Needed) from the Government Accounting Office revealed that many DoD child care programs failed to meet the minimum fire and safety codes. In addition, there was a lack of effective inspection systems, little or few consequences for deficiencies and noncompliance, no oversight for Child Development Homes, and staff training and professional expectations were subpar. Families remained on wait lists for unreasonably long periods of time, and parent fees were disproportionately high, making child care virtually inaccessible for many families. In 1986, the Presidio Army base was the subject of child abuse allegations, which spurred Congressional hearings and ultimately led to the MCCA.
The MCCA became the catalyst for a complete transformation of military child care, and focused on improving the quality, affordability, and accessibility of military child care by:
- Requiring the development and implementation of comprehensive standards
- Establishing accreditation requirements
- Enforcing licensing mandates through a rigorous inspection and annual certification process
- Creating an effective and efficient child care subsidy system to reduce the financial burden on military families, and implementing a sliding fee scale based on family income
- Improving wages for staff
- Strengthening training and professional development, including providing designated Training Specialists to support training and curriculum development
- Developing an effective inspection system, including unannounced inspection visits and heavy consequences for noncompliance
- Increasing the amount of DoD funding provided to each service branch for child care programs
Military child care came from being viewed as ineffective and of poor quality, but today it is recognized as a national model for high quality child care, and has even been described as the “gold standard for child care.” President Clinton “hailed military child care as the nation’s model of excellence” at a White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Today’s military child care system is a model of excellence that other child care programs turn to for lessons learned and best practices.