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Official Calls Military Child Care'Model for Nation'

Samantha Quigley, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs

Sesame Street Muppets Rosita, right, and Elmo, accompanied Melvin Ming, Sesame Workshop’s chief operating officer, to the Defense Department’s 2009 Child Development Conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 17, 2009. Elmo and Rosita helped Ming explain the Workshop’s “Talk, Listen, Connect” videos designed to help military kids deal with many of the challenges they face. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley

WASHINGTON - 11.18.2009

The Military Child Care Act of 1989 has made the military child care system the one to emulate.

"We have come a long way," said Tommy T. Thomas, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, during the opening remarks of the department's annual child development conference. "The Department of Defense Child Development System is ... a model for this nation."

Before 1989, care for military children was little more than on-post drop-off and nurseries, Thomas said. What was available often was housed in converted stables, Quonset huts, basement or attics. Many facilities were operated by private organizations or staffed by volunteers, and often care was available only for social events. Retaining trained, qualified caregivers was extremely difficult.

In the 20 years since enactment of the Military Child Care Act, military child care has undergone enormous change. Those changes have led to recognition by a number of organizations, including the National Association of Regulatory Administration and the National Women's Law Center for the department's commitment to high-quality, accessible, affordable child care.

Military child care service improved after the act became law, Thomas said in an interview after the opening session of the conference. "My kids experienced a whole new, different type of [care] than the earlier military kids," he said.

"When my kids were dropped off to the child care center, the first thing my wife would say is, 'That's a very clean environment. The people are warm. They welcome you. They open arms to you,'" he said. "And the kids loved their providers. That's the experience that I have received with three of my children. Every one of them, at some point, has used the child care facility."

Military child development centers today are staffed with permanent, well-trained employees, and offer care for children 6 weeks to 12 years old that fits most parents' schedules at more than 300 locations. In fact, Thomas said, 97 percent of the more than 300 military child development centers serving more than 200,000 children are accredited through the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a division of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, lauded the military's approach to improving its system. The Military Child Care Act was particularly important, she said, because it applied a systemic approach to improving the quality, affordability, and availability of child care for all servicemembers, regardless of rank or income.

"The military child care system has been faithful in adhering to these goals in operations and furthering them in a systemic way," she said.

By contrast, she said, the private-sector child care industry is a patchwork of legislative initiatives resulting in an incomprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of providing affordable child care to the civilian population.

While the issue of child development for military children centers on the programs offered by on-post facilities, organizations such as Sesame Workshop take it a step further.

"We are television, but like Cookie [Monster] says, cookies are a sometimes food," said Melvin Ming, Sesame Workshop's chief operating officer, the conference's second keynote speaker.

"Television is not designed to be the babysitter all the time," he said. "[However], we want to harness the power of the media ... to encourage children to learn so that they can reach their highest potential. So the opportunity to work with the military ... on TLC, the Talk, Listen, Connect project, has just been wonderful."

Ming didn't have much chance to talk about the project, a series of DVDs aimed at helping military children cope with the challenges of military life, before his "boss," Elmo, showed up and stole the show.

Elmo and his best friend, Rosita, explained TLC to the more than 500 laughing conferees, as only the perpetually 3-and-a-half-year-old Muppet can.

"Military kids have so much to deal with," Elmo said.

"Yeah, but you know what can help a little? Talk, Listen, Connect," Rosita replied. "Talk, Listen, Connect is the way grownups can help military kids when they're going through hard times."

"Right!" Elmo responded. "You talk to the kids, tell them what's going on."

"And listen to what they have to say, and what they might be worried about," Rosita added. "And don't forget, keep connected."

The conference, which includes a number of sessions to give military child care providers more tools with which to do their jobs, will continue tomorrow.

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