Some activists say a recent and long-awaited change to a key Pentagon regulation falls short of its goal of providing vital assistance to military families with special needs. When a military family moves to a new facility, it can be difficult to find the support services they need for family members with special needs, such as children or adults. In an effort to set more consistent standards across all branches, the Department of Defense released its own curriculum late last week. On the other hand, the charity Partners in PROMISE, which focuses on special education challenges for military families, said on its website that “the update is disappointing” and that a more great clarity was needed for military families.
Congress is considering expanding opportunities for military spouses to work remotely in the federal government. “It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go,” Partners in PROMISE founder and executive director Michelle Norman told Military.com in a Tuesday phone interview. The fact that some families receive extensive communication with legal and educational experts who provide assistance while others are left almost entirely to their own devices has long been cited as a criticism of the Exceptional Family Member Program.
The Department of Defense’s new strategy aims to standardize the many different programs in the military to reduce the variety of approaches taken. According to the Pentagon press release, the policy for the Exceptional Family Member Program has been updated to allow service members to request a second review of base assignment decisions and use the same criteria for all. services when determining the resources available to families. This ensures that the unique requirements of the family will be taken into account when assigning tasks. Among the improvements, the Associate Director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Special Needs, Tomeshia S. Barnes, said in a press release that service members can now request a second review of assignment choices and that all branches of the armed forces use the same criteria to determine the availability of services. Specifically, “It is important that service members now learn the reason for declined orders.”
The regulations also mandate annual meetings between the Military Family Case Manager and the Exceptional Family Member Program participant. But Partners in PROMISE said it’s still unclear which officials are responsible for ensuring continental U.S. bases have adequate special education resources, and there’s also a lack. clarity in the moment and that will initiate many of the necessary conversations between bases and families when they are handed over.
Even though the Department of Defense has improved communications between bases when a family with special needs is relocated – which Norman praised – many questions remain unanswered. “That experience varies greatly for families, depending on what branch of service you’re in,” Norman said. “In addition to the family support offered at these facilities, … and so when you read (the Pentagon instruction), all it says is (to) collaborate together,” the author writes.
The Government Accountability Office criticized the Exceptional Family Members program in a 2018 study, saying that support for military families with exceptional needs “varies significantly for each branch of military service.” A hearing on the Exceptional Family Members Program was held by the House Armed Services Committee’s Military Personnel Subcommittee in 2020, during which family members testified about their experiences with the program and pleaded for additional funding and resources.
After that hearing, Congress included language mandating uniformity in the Exceptional Family Members Program in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021. Pentagon officials have admitted that more needs to be done, despite the fact that it has been more than two years since the bill was signed into law and the new standardized policy has now been revealed. “We serve and work to continually update and improve the EFMP Policy,” Barnes said in the announcement.