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Finding child care for military kids


Fort Liberty Army spouse Holly Crenshaw’s search for child care began weeks before accepting an offer of employment.
She got her two children on waitlists and patched together temporary solutions to the standard of care she desired for them.
“I needed to find a place where I knew the kids would be safe, and I knew they would be taken care of,” Holly said. “My main priority was safety.”
April is the Month of the Military Child, and finding high-quality and affordable child care is a critical component of many military family support systems. Amid the challenge of reestablishing care at each station, service members and spouses continue to persevere in securing care to help their children thrive.
Beginning the search for child care
Kayla Corbitt, executive director of The Operation Child Care Project and military spouse, works with Fort Liberty and other military families to help manage gaps in their child care journeys.
When Kayla works with families, she walks them through a few key steps: What they can afford and what subsidies are available to them; what care their kids need; what unique factors might require additional support; what the family’s non-negotiables are; and what local backup options are available. Military families often need non-traditional child care hours in addition to regular daytime hours, such as early mornings or overnights.
“We can’t plan for everything, but we can make an A, B, and C plan,” Kayla said. She recommended families search for military resources and state government-run child care initiatives as well, such as Smart Start and Think Babies™ NC Alliance in North Carolina. She said staying informed can aid your family’s search.
Kayla emphasized that due to high turnover rates at most centers, it is very important to consider the culture and safety created by the director and administrative staff. She said the director and administrative staff will likely have a greater impact on your ability to address issues that arise with your child than the teacher alone. After safety, the staff should be a key factor in your care location decision.
“[When finding a care location], rather than focusing on whether you like a particular teacher, focus your energy on the administrative staff and director,” Kayla said. “If you need to bring up an issue or problem, the staff being on your side is pivotal.”
Amid the search for long-term care options, Holly’s family created patchwork solutions after her son lost his spot at a center and after her job began.
“My mom came down from Virginia, and we got my son in [occupational therapy],” she said. “ … This was his first time in school because I worked remotely for five years and also watched the kids.”
While her mother stayed with the family, Holly’s sibling also required child care help in Virginia — child care became a full family effort. Holly and her parents would drive to Virginia every other weekend.
“We really tried to work together to make everything happen that needed to happen,” Holly said.
Engaging in children’s well-being
Even when a family secures amazing, trusted care, parents can experience mixed emotions.
“The parent generally has this mixed bag of feelings: anxiety, guilt, but also an overwhelming sense of relief, like a weight has been lifted,” Kayla said.
Kayla observed in The Operation Child Care Project collected data that care helps families in practical ways. When children get learning opportunities, social play, and healthy food every day, parents in turn get the support they need, Kayla said.
“Everybody wins in these situations,” she said. “There’s a deepening bond between parents and children.”
Once a military family secures trusted care, there are ways to help manage children’s expectations for those caregiving relationships.
“Communicating to them who the different caregivers are, and how long they anticipate them being in their life [can help],” said Lauren Wells, chief executive officer of TCK Training, a North Carolina-based organization working with children living global lifestyles, including military kids. She said this helps children gauge how attached they should become to a caregiver.
And once the children feel more settled, staying engaged with the center staff can help promote mutual cooperation between parents and teachers, Kayla said.
“Even if you don’t fully participate in the activities, these are an olive branch [the directors] are reaching out to engage their own staff and parents,” she said.
Preparing for the next move
When a family anticipates a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) — when a military family moves to a different installation, typically every one to four years — Kayla recommends starting the child care search immediately. Locating both military and civilian waitlists can help you determine the kind of support you can anticipate upon arrival.
“If you are a military family and you are using any form of fee assistance, as soon as you think you might be moving, jump on the waitlists and prepare yourself financially for center deposits,” Kayla said.
After sorting logistical tasks, parents can then aid children with the transition mentally and emotionally.
Moving can present both challenges and opportunities from a child’s perspective. “The best part of being a military kid is probably meeting people from all around the world!” said Ella, a 15-year-old Fort Liberty military kid. “It’s always fun to see where people are from or where they have PCSed to!”
Military children are often called “resilient” in light of frequent moves, but Lauren emphasized that resilience only happens with parental guidance. She said, “Resilience is not a child’s default setting, it is cultivated with intentional support and care.”
For younger children, Lauren emphasizes the importance of validating their feelings before, during, and after a move: “You might say, ‘It is really hard that we have to leave these people, and it makes sense that you feel really angry about that.’ You’re giving them words and language.”
For older children, one strategy Lauren recommends to parents is preventing abrupt disconnection from friends after a move. She adds that this can look like “finding ways to stay in touch, talking about people [they knew]. We want to see in-person relationships increase as long-distance relationships decrease. This creates a natural progression.”
Child-free adults can support military children, too
Not every military individual or family can or wants to raise children, but whether raising children or not, there are many opportunities to impact military kids in positive ways.
“We know that supportive, non-parent relationships with all children, not just military kids, is a critical piece of resilience building, especially during hardships,” Lauren said. She went on to say that supportive adults who help children feel seen, heard, and valued can serve as an extra protective buffer against the impact of hardships, such as the loss of moving.
“I have friends everywhere,” said Savannah, a 12-year-old Fort Liberty military kid. “Like, seriously, I still talk to them all the time. I’ve lived in a lot of places no one else gets to live, and learned a lot of languages, and it makes me love the world even more.”
Helping maintain both these friendships and healthy non-parent relationships can make a big difference.
Lauren said, “We are huge advocates for people who aren’t the parents investing in these military kids because when they’re doing that, they are adding that protective layer the parents can’t provide. The parents need external support, too.”
So the youth workers, coaches, “aunties” and “uncles,” and other adults in a child’s life can make a difference by helping the children know they are seen, safe, and valued.
Persevere and ask for help along the way
In her search for child care, Holly reached out to Kayla at The Operation Child Care Project for help, as she worked hard to utilize every available resource. And after 10 months of searching, tours, waitlists, family care, and more, the Crenshaw family finally found a safe, accessible, long-term solution.
Both of her children were accepted to a nearby private school with the right support her children needed.
“I felt like I could breathe,” Holly said.
Holly offers this encouragement: “The day you get a positive pregnancy test, start the process for child care. Keep reaching out and doing what you can … Keep going and make a way.”
When it comes to finding safe, high-quality child care, Fort Liberty military families persevere in finding the best care possible. And no matter how long it takes, the well-being of military children is worth every minute.