KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - In January 2019, Mychelle Eckstein got word she'd been hired for a job at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Excited as she was to get working, she knew her 2-year-old daughter, Lyla, would need child care. That's when anxiety crept in.

"I'd heard from social media and others that you could be 'wait-listed' for more than a year trying to get into one of the area Child Development Centers," said Eckstein, wife of Army Sgt. Nathaniel Eckstein, 102nd Signal Battalion. "I was expecting to have to find another child care provider."

These kinds of expectations, like long wait times to get into area CDCs, true or false, are not uncommon and are usually the product of not having accurate information from the source, according to Jason Etchell, who serves as the coordinator for seven Army-run CDCs at U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz. He believes in the mission of what he does.

"Our mission is to (support Soldier and family readiness) by reducing the conflict between mission requirements and parent responsibilities," Etchell said. "Placing children so military members can go to work is of prime importance to us."

In February 2019, now Secretary of Defense Mark Esper added his support to Etchell's ability to support mission readiness. "Child care is very important, so I want to put dollars there and I want to make sure we get the policies right," said Esper during a town hall meeting with the Association of the U.S. Army. "I've got a lot of military kids who are not in on-base child care, and they should be. So it's things like that I'm going to change, either from a funding perspective or a policy perspective."

GETTING ON THE LIST

More than 200 Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation employees serve seven Army CDCs in the garrison footprint - two at Baumholder, two at Landstuhl, and one each at Kleber Kaserne, Miesau Army Depot, and Sembach Kaserne. Kleber CDC reopened in August 2019. The Air Force also offers CDCs at Ramstein Air Base and Vogelweh Housing Complex.

Entry into any of those facilities or in-home family child care must start with a visit to MilitaryChildCare.com. The portal is the entry point for child care for military CDCs around the world. Eckstein found the initial enrollment tricky but, once enrolled, said the website performed well.

"It was much smoother than I was expecting," she said. "It was a breeze to use."

Once in the system, applicants are broken into areas of priority set by Department of Defense with regard to the sponsor type (military or civilian) and spouse status (active duty, full-time working, student, seeking employment). The system then uses the assigned priority along with the request of care date to determine the sequence on the wait list. According to Etchell, the type of families that fall into 'category 1', the highest priority category, include:

. Families with 'wounded warriors'
. Child and Youth Services staff members
. Single- and dual-military families
. One parent military or DoD civilian with full-time working spouse

The system also prioritizes full-time students, as it does families with a parent that does not work (on a space-available basis) and others.

"We actively work this wait list and try to figure out ways to get parents in as quickly as possible," Etchell said. "Our staff work very hard. I know they really don't like when they need to tell someone who needs child care that they will need to be on the wait list."

BEING UNDERSTANDING, FLEXIBLE FOR FAMILY NEEDS

Eckstein said she waited about three weeks before she got word on an opening -- and a challenge. She wanted Lyla to be cared for at one of the two Landstuhl CDCs. However, the first available opening came from Vogelweh.

"We weren't thrilled and it wasn't convenient, but we accepted it," she said. "We live on Vogelweh, but we wanted Lyla at Landstuhl. It just made more sense for us," Eckstein said.

Eckstein's dilemma is one that confronts many families and is solved only when someone vacates an available slot or staffing is increased. Some wait weeks, even months, for a slot. Some settle. Fortunately for Eckstein, a family got orders and a space opened in Landstuhl.

"The CDC staff at Landstuhl is fantastic. They are always so nice," she said.

The space versus 'want' dilemma is a reason why Etchell and others ask families to be flexible in the process. "If it comes to a point where we have a wait list and it's more than the capacity of those centers, it is a challenge," he said. "There's only a finite amount of space in all CDCs."

Etchell and his team have also been able to open more space by other means. Previously, CYS school-age centers had before- and after-school hours. CYS decided it could use the time in between 'before and after' for care of younger children by shifting parts of part-day programs over to the school-age center.

"Subsequently, we were able to increase the number of full-day spaces in our Landstuhl CDC," Etchell said.

CAREGIVERS NEEDED NOW

Staffing is the primary means CDCs are able to open more slots. Each center needs more help, Etchell said, and is eager to hire people.

To help with the USAG RP cause, the secretary of defense has made some policy changes with regard to child care and is trying to increase capacity at CDCs by easing hiring practices to get workers in more quickly.

"In many cases the reason why our child development centers are not at full capacity is that we have an insufficient number of providers," Esper said. In 2018, it was taking an average of 134 days to hire a civilian, and Esper said his goal is to get it below 60 days.

The garrison advertises entry level positions in classrooms, administrative, support and management positions via USAJobs.gov. Etchell encouraged people to apply, adding that in addition to high placement on the priority list for child care, funding for college classes and other many other incentives come with the job.

"If we get enough people to work for us, we can offer as many spaces as the operational capacity of our CDCs will allow," Etchell said. "We have a very passionate staff that wants to provide the best possible care. They are committed to not only meeting basic needs of the children, but preparing kids with skills to be successful in school and for life."

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Etchell said parents should act quickly after notification of an assignment to find a space they want. "As quickly as possible, go apply at MilitaryChildCare.com and designate as many child care options as are available. It will really help us help them get the care that they need."

In reflection, Eckstein said patience and flexibility were the key to getting Lyla into a CDC of choice. "I would say not to settle for one specific day care center. That helped me. I wait listed for all of them, I was going to be happy with whatever I got," she said.

Information about Army child care in the Kaiserslautern Military Community is available at https://kaiserslautern.armymwr.com/programs/childcare, and for the Baumholder Military Community at https://baumholder.armymwr.com/programs/childcare. To apply for child care, go to www.militarychildcare.com.