From the Homefront: Making childcare a priority

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 13 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.

Janet Cantrell, far right, speaks with Work-Life staff: Shay Cook,

Janet Cantrell, far right, speaks with Work-Life staff: Shay Cook,
family services division, Rodney Whaley, transition assistance program manager, and Christine DeGraw, ombudsman program manager. Photo courtesy of Janet Cantrell.

Written by Shelley Kimball

I know how isolating it can be when you can’t find childcare. It affects so many things in our daily lives as parents. And right now, things are pretty frustrating in the Coast Guard childcare arena.

The Coast Guard uses two ways to try to ease this pressure for families: through the availability of Child Development Centers and with a childcare subsidy that reimburses childcare expenses.

The problem is that using these resources can be really exasperating, and in some cases, nearly impossible. But that may be changing, as the Coast Guard is redoubling its efforts to streamline these two services and make them easier to access.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

The uproar right now is focused on the childcare subsidy. The issue gained momentum when Janet Cantrell, spouse of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, returned from visits to Coast Guard stations and reported back that families were struggling with childcare.

“As I began meeting with spouses and ombudsmen throughout the Coast Guard, the most mentioned issue has been child care,” Cantrell said. “Once I return, I do what is called a ‘trip report.’ This report mentions all concerns and challenges that I found during my visit.”

The subsidy is a joint effort with the federal General Services Administration, and it allows families with an active duty Coast Guard member and his or her spouse, who are both working or attending school, to receive financial assistance for child care costs for children 12 and younger. The amount a family receives is based on the family’s total family income.

However, there have been substantial delays of up to six to eight months in receiving reimbursement for childcare costs. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steven Cantrell recently wrote a column assuring families that the Coast Guard is working directly with the GSA to streamline the process and find ways to make sure families receive their funding.

It’s impossible to know how many applications are backlogged, Janet Cantrell said.

“There is no way to accurately give a number of applications that are back logged – there are simply too many tiers to the process,” she said. “For example, some may be in the queue, and some may have been returned due to application error, provider information, etc.”

For example, it took Danielle Kimmel about six months from when she applied to when she received subsidy payments. Her husband is stationed on the Cutter Halibut, and they are parents to two boys, 8 and 2. When their youngest son turned one, she decided to go back to work, and thought the subsidy would be a great help in off-setting the cost of childcare.

“The cost of living here is too high for us to get by with just one income,” Kimmel said. “If we didn’t get the subsidy, I would be working strictly to pay for child care.”

The application process has been frustrating. At first, they were assigned one point of contact for their application, and they were told that their application was complete. But then, every time they called to check on the status, they were told there were other documents to complete.

“We had no problem completing paperwork, but we had no idea there was more to be done. No one ever called to say, ‘Hey, we still need this before we can move forward.’” Kimmel said.

Kimmel said she had to be extremely persistent, and she called after every submission of every document to ensure that it was received. She would recommend the same to anyone else trying to receive the subsidy.

Danielle Kimmel and her family waited for 6 months to receive their childcare subsidy reimbursements. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kimmel.

Danielle Kimmel and her family waited for 6 months to receive their childcare subsidy reimbursements. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kimmel.

“My advice for others would be to hang in there!” she said. “I would say definitely follow up. Call to confirm your paperwork was received and there is nothing else they need from you, and call the next day just verify again. I would also call one week later to see what progress has been made. I think that they have a large caseload and it’s hard for them follow up with you. I don’t think it is at all intentional. This is a such generous service provided by the Coast Guard and we truly appreciate it!”

For Stacy Bilodeau, the paperwork and the hassle to get the subsidy ended up not being as beneficial as she thought. Her husband was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, and she applied for the subsidy when her husband was underway and she needed childcare for her children who are 1 and 3. She said she knew that not all of her childcare expenses would be covered, but she thought that the assistance might make a bit of a dent in the bill.

“It’s a good program, and I’m glad it’s there,” Bilodeau said. “We received $9 a month for both our children in full-time care. I wish they would have been more upfront with how much they were able to give.”

Child Development Centers

Child Development Centers are known for their long waitlists. But Cantrell heard from spouses on her visits that Coast Guard families were at an increased disadvantage in trying to get into DOD CDCs, so she discussed it with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

“During these visits, it was brought to my attention that some of the spouses appeared to be given a lower priority at DOD CDC’s,” Cantrell said. “During a scheduled lunch, I mentioned to the Secretary of Defense Hagel that this was a concern of our Coast Guard families.”

In September, that discrepancy was remedied. The Coast Guard renewed its memorandum of understanding that allows its families to use the DOD’s Child Development Centers. The MOU also ensures that Coast Guard families will receive the same eligibility and wait times as military families whose branches fall under the DOD. The same is true in reverse – DOD families will receive the same eligibility as Coast Guard families at Coast Guard CDCs.

Melanie Kimball, a Coast Guard spouse whose husband is stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she is still on a waitlist for a space at a CDC overseen by the Navy. From the outset, they were told the waitlist would be at least six months. The CDC can’t tell them how much longer they will be on the waitlist because they list itself changes regularly based on families’ priority levels.

Meanwhile, she was trying to make plans for a teaching position.

“This made daycare timing particularly difficult because I didn’t want to accept a job without childcare lined up but didn’t want to line childcare up too soon and not have a job yet to pay for it,” Kimball said.

They have been on the CDC waitlist for seven months so far, and she needed to start work, so she put her son in an off-base facility. They have applied for subsidy reimbursement, but they have not yet heard back, she said.

“We’ve been paying full price, out of pocket since he started,” Kimball said.

Melanie Kimball, far right, and her family have struggled with finding a place a CDC for their son Ethan. They are still waiting to receive a response to their childcare subsidy application. Photo courtesy of Melanie Kimball.

Melanie Kimball, far right, and her family have struggled with finding a place a CDC for their son Ethan. They are still waiting to receive a response to their childcare subsidy application. Photo courtesy of Melanie Kimball.

There are nine CDCs on Coast Guard bases across the country. Our CDCs are different from those in DOD military branches because the Coast Guard does not have a mandate to provide childcare in the same way that the DOD does, said Ken O’Meara, the dependent care program manager at Coast Guard headquarters. That means that those nine CDCs exist because command at those locations deemed childcare an importance aspect of mission readiness, he said.

The waitlists are based on the availability of spaces by the age of the child. For example, O’Meara said, there are a lot of infants and toddlers on the waitlists right now.

Each CDC oversees its own waitlist, and its application process may vary. Some may require a payment to take a place on the waitlist, while others may not.

Moving forward

Childcare is considered a cornerstone program for child development services, O’Meara said, so it is a priority. He said most Coast Guard families live on the economy and use economy resources. So the Coast Guard is trying to find ways to accommodate families, and provide as many resources as possible, while still remaining financially responsible.

Additionally, O’Meara said, the Coast Guard wants to remain as open with families as possible, and it will continue to get the word out as progress is made.

“We want to be sure we are transparent,” O’Meara said. “We are not hiding anything. This will be an ongoing issue.”

He said he knew there were delays, but he didn’t know there was such a large problem until he started hearing that the GSA was not responding to families.

“We weren’t aware. It kind of took us by surprise, too,” O’Meara said. “I knew that there was a lag in time. I was getting e-mails from the families. It was the red flag in the room when they said, ‘nobody’s answering their telephones.’ That led me to believe there was a bigger issue. ”

O’Meara said he wants families to know that, within headquarters, they are working to resolve the backlogs with GSA. GSA leadership has spoken with Coast Guard leadership about the issue. There are weekly meetings with GSA to discuss progress, and GSA has added additional personnel to help alleviate the backlog.

“It’s not something that’s gone unnoticed,” O’Meara said. “We are working this very, very diligently, and as quickly as we can.”

GSA response

According to Angela Brees, a regional public affairs officer for the GSA, the backlog is due to a lack of GSA personnel to respond to the increase in growth in the Coast Guard’s program.

“We understand this is a great benefit for the USCG personnel, and we are working hard to address the backlog,” Brees said.

Currently, the average wait time is estimated at two to three months, Brees said, and some make take as many as four months. She said that the GSA started trying to remedy the problem in July, and since then, they have been hiring more personnel quickly to respond to the growing demand. It will take one to two more months to process the delayed applications, she said.

Eliminating the Coast Guard backlog remains a priority, she said.

“The agency has brought in a process improvement team to review our process and workflow to help us streamline the overall process,” Brees said. “We have also shifted a significant number of additional resources to this issue.”

When the backlog is cleared, Brees said, the average wait time to process a subsidy application should be about 25 days.

“This can fluctuate depending on the unique situation of a particular case, such as incomplete data from either the family or the provider,” Brees said.

Janet Cantrell said, in addition, that GSA is trying to identify common application errors that may contribute to delays in payment.

“Based on these efforts, we are working with the Work-Life staff to potentially develop a quick reference guide to help families better understand the application process,” she said.

Janet Cantrell said that any families who continue to experience frustration in trying to get access to childcare assistance should be sure to bring it to the attention of those in their Coast Guard support system.

U.S. Coast Guard Image.

U.S. Coast Guard Image.

“Our Work-Life program managers work extremely hard to make sure our Coast Guard families are well provided for,” she said. “Anyone having questions concerning this issue should be brought to the attention of their ombudsman or local Work-Life office.”

Other pieces of advice in navigating the childcare system, she said:

• When applying for the subsidy, research the application process. Information can be found at the GSA website, CG Office of Work Life website and there is also a link on the HSWL app.

• Talk with another family who has applied for the subsidy and ask a lot of questions.

• If an issue with the subsidy still has not been rectified, Contact GSA directly at 1-866-508-0371. The, if the issue still has not been resolved in a timely manner, contact the office of Work Life program manager at 1-202-475-5160.

Cantrell said that she and Fran DeNinno, the ombudsman at large, will continue to work toward assisting families with childcare support.

“Although this benefit was not available when our children were child care age, I understand the importance and necessity that the Child Care Subsidy is for our CG families,” Cantrell said. “Mrs. DeNinno, the Commandant’s wife, and I are determined to continue this effort to work with the wonderful Work-Life staff to make child care available and affordable for our Coast Guard families.”

Resources:

Coast Guard Childcare Subsidy: Use the link we have here. If you Google it, you’ll find a lot of broken links and outdated material. This is the main GSA page, and it has the application information attached.

FAQs about the childcare subsidy: Again, go here instead of trying to track it down other places. This link also has the benefit table to explain how it works with pay and the number of kids.

Coast Guard CDC list: There are nine Child Development Centers on Coast Guard stations. The openings for care vary depending on the ages of the children. Coast Guard families also have eligibility to send their children to CDCs on the installations for other military branches.

How to manage CDC waitlists: CDCs are known for their waitlists. This is a list of tips and advice for managing those lists.

Basic information about Coast Guard childcare assistance: This link provides an overview on childcare support, and it has an extensive list of links that may be helpful.

Contact at Coast Guard Headquarters: If you have tried to get information from GSA, and you still have not heard back, contact Ken O’Meara, the dependent care program manager for the Coast Guard Kenneth.R.O’Meara@uscg.mil or by phone at (202) 475-5160.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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