Servicemembers and their families are expected to deal with deployments, move often, make new friends and face an array of challenges their civilian counterparts do not. Imagine having to endure such challenges alone - removed from everyone and everything familiar to you. For dozens of children whose parents are stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, they have no choice in this difficult everyday reality.
In 2009, there were 68 children taken into care from JBLM. All of those children were removed from the community and placed in non-military homes. Many were separated from siblings and all that was familiar to them, including base schools.
In Pierce County, there are more than 300 state licensed homes, less than a handful of which are on JBLM. All local military foster children compete for these relatively few homes. Until now, military children had next to no alternatives other than being moved off the installation.
A partnership pilot project between JBLM and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services aims at changing that difficult reality by placing military foster children in homes similar to their own, easing the transition of moving from one family to another.
Sandi Vest, project manager for the Child, Adolescent and Family Behavioral Health Proponency, said the initiative is crucial to the well-being of military children who end up in foster care.
Normally the state Department of Child Protective Services attempts to place children with relatives, but with military families, this is usually not an option because of the distances from extended families.
"In the military, we usually don't have a lot of relatives nearby, so the next big push is to keep them in the same culture to minimize the stress on the child," Vest said, "If you're used to being around all military kids, and all of a sudden you're in a school that only has a handful you might not even know, that just adds stress."
Medical care can also become a problem. The farther children move from JBLM, the less chance they have of being seen by doctors who understand their situations.
Captain Tamara Grigsby, a doctor with the Child Health and Injury Prevention Clinic at Madigan, was instrumental in starting the pilot project. Her mission is to improve healthcare for military foster children. A key challenge she faces as a medical provider is that often when a child goes into foster care, she loses contact with the child. Children who move off the installation and eventually move back with their biological families often have huge gaps in their medical records.
"As pediatricians, we certainly recognize that kids in foster care are a different population of kids that we see," Grigsby said. "Unlike some in the civilian system, these kids have medical insurance, and it's important that we keep them as part of the community and see them on a regular basis."
Data suggests that neglect and suspected child abuse are the primary reasons military children land in foster care. According to the Children's Administration of DSHS, the stress of deployments leads to increased incidents of child abuse. Other children are not abused, but have parents who simply need an extended break to pull themselves together.
"It's pretty obvious when you go through it why someone would be struggling so much," Vest said. "When you have younger families with small kids and maybe medical issues, you can completely understand why sometimes they get overwhelmed - maybe depressed - and find it hard to take care of their children."
Prospective foster families must meet eligibility requirements and complete seven nights of training. The classes are currently held in Tacoma, but Vest said they are planning classes on JBLM as early as next month. Foster families are paid a monthly stipend to offset most costs, and training is free.
Becoming a military foster parent is a win-win situation for everyone, including the community as a whole, said Eric Olson, director of Strategic Communications, CAF-BHP.
"Access to post and facilities is a lot easier when you have a foster-care child who comes from a military family and is going to another military family," Olson said.
"With it being another military member, I think that almost makes it like being a relative foster-care placement," Grigsby said. "There's already an understanding of where the person comes from and what their values are to some degree."
"Simply put, it's the right thing to do," Olson said.

Laura M. Levering: