HEIDELBERG, Germany - An Army program to provide free, qualified care for exceptional family members has just become even better, and might mean a little boy named Chance learns to communicate with the world.

Chance Ratliff is 3 years old and has global delay, meaning he has difficulty speaking or communicating.

This inability leads to visible frustration, said Capt. Joe Ratliff, a V Corps staffer, and Chance's father.

"We are constantly trying to initiate conversation," he said. "At times, he will come up and babble at you, but he is aware that he can't be understood, and it can lead to tantrums and crying."

For Soldiers in the deployment cycle, Respite Care now offers up to 40 hours of care monthly for each registered exceptional family member, said Helena Palmer, U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg Exceptional Family Member Program manager.

"What respite care does for us," Ratliff said, "is give us the opportunity to put Chance around different people, and give him different stimuli to get him to communicate with the world."

The program offers a choice to the family about specifics of where and who will provide those hours.

"We want someone we can trust who has that characteristic that makes Chance feel comfortable," Ratliff said.

"With me working and my wife a stay-at-home Mom, this frees her up to do some adult things and take care of business where bringing Chance would be difficult," Ratliff said.

"Parenting is tough anyway, but with this, it is even more difficult," he said.

To apply for Respite Care, a physician must verify that the family member is in the EFMP, said Palmer.

If the family member is in school, he must have an individual education program and at least a moderate recorded disability, she said.

Infants and toddlers must be on an individual family service plan, and also have at least a moderate recorded disability, Palmer added.

Families need only apply once, there is no re-evaluation for each request, Palmer said.

"The family will be able to interview the care providers, because trust is such a huge issue," Palmer said. "They will be able to find someone that they are comfortable with."

The support can be in the home or in an approved setting, she said.

"We interviewed a couple of people," Ratliff said, "and one thing that was important to us was the experience they had -- whether they have worked with children before.

"With Respite Care there is greater latitude of different things the providers can do with your child, since it is one-on-one," he said.

Caregivers earn a generous salary, Palmer said, and their homes, if used for support, must qualify as a family child care home.

Those interested should also contact the EFMP managers in their communities.

"Fortunately I have a good pool of qualified applicants," Palmer said.

(Art McQueen is a member of the USAG Heidelberg Public Affairs Office)