WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2010 -- The Defense Department will launch an initiative early next year aimed at expanding the quality and quantity of community-based child care options for geographically dispersed Reserve and Active Duty families and for families facing long waits for on-base care.

Through the initiative, DoD will work with federal agencies, state officials and child care centers and programs to raise the quality of care within communities, which should translate to an increased child care capacity for military families, Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon's office of family policy/children and youth, explained.

"We know child care is a work force issue," Thompson said. It's vital "not just for our deployed servicemembers, but for our servicemembers who are here working long shifts, that they know their children are taken care of, that they are in a high-quality, developmentally appropriate, nurturing environment."

The initiative will be introduced as a two-year pilot program in 13 states that share the same "quest for quality" as the DoD, she said.

The initiative has been in the works for several years, Thompson said, and arose out of an evident need. When seeking more child care options for Guard and Reserve families, DoD officials conducted an analysis of the quality of licensing requirements across the nation and found a lack of nationally accredited care and some "frightening" standards," she said.

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, just 8 to 10 percent of state child development facilities are accredited. Within the DoD, however, 98 percent of DoD child development programs are accredited.

"It's very hard for us to connect a military family with a program that we know is not developmentally appropriate and is not high quality," Thompson said. "We know how much it influences the well-being of children."

A lack of community-based care particularly impacts Guard and Reserve families, who typically are geographically separated from on-base care centers.

"We have three things we know are critical: availability, affordability and quality," Thompson said.

Through the initiative, DoD officials will share lessons learned from the military child care system and also offer states support to improve the quality of the child care standards and oversight, she said.

The department will leverage its Joint Family Support Assistance Program teams, which include a child and youth behavior specialist and Military OneSource consultant, as one of many state partners interested in improving quality.

The department also will hire a state child care liaison who will work with state agencies, the state's Early Childhood Council, Health and Human Services, Head Start and the licensing bureau. The liaisons also will help to identify providers, including schools, recreation programs and home-based care programs, willing to take the steps needed to improve their quality.

From there, the department will provide technical and training assistance, Thompson explained.

By doing so, there's an added benefit. Care not only is improved for military families, but for all children within the program, she said.

Those programs that meet the DoD's standards will be added to the list of approved providers, and the department will buy down the cost of care for military families.

Officials will track quality improvements through an evaluation of child care licensing standards and the state quality rating and improvement system, Thompson said. Once the two-year pilot program is over, officials will evaluate its success and lessons learned, she said.

Officials had specific criteria in mind when selecting the 13 states for the pilot program, Thompson said. They chose some states based on the lack of an Active Duty installation, such as Vermont and Indiana, and others for their deployment impact and existing quality improvement rating systems, she said.

The 13 states selected to participate are Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.

The initiative marks an extensive effort on DoD's part, Thompson noted. Officials conducted research to determine the most important quality indicators and to make sure they fully understood each state's licensing requirement, she said, and also had to develop a rating system that would work in a civilian community.

Officials also worked in collaboration with the Health and Human Services, Education, and Agriculture departments.

"They opened a lot of very important doors for us," she said.

Thompson hopes the initiative will have a positive impact, not only for military families, but the nation as a whole.

"We're hoping to increase the availability of quality childcare for our military members and also help the United States in its endeavor to improve quality in early childhood environments across the nation," she said.

The message to military families, she added, is "we care about you and we care about the future of your children."