The following is a transcription of the podcast, “Support for Military Families Whose Children have Special Needs (audio).”
In this NCLD podcast, Candace Cortiella speaks with Heather Hebdon, Executive Director of the Specialized Training of Military Parents (STOMP), part of the national network of Parent Training and Information Centers that serves parents of children with disabilities. STOMP is dedicated to serving parents who serve in the U.S. Military. As a director of STOMP for 25 years, Heather is extremely knowledgeable about the issues facing military families who have children with disabilities.
Candace Cortiella: Welcome, Heather. The first question I would like to ask you is how many children and youth have parents serving in the U.S. military today? Do you know approximately how many families have children or [other] family members who have some type of disability?
Heather Hebdon: The last government audit (GAO) study that was done with the Department of Defense found that over 1.5 million of the military personnel across all branches had at least one child. The interesting thing is that, within our civilian sector you would expect 9 to 11 percent [of children to have disabilities], but you will find at least 12 percent (and some estimates are higher) [among military families]. But we know for sure from the data that’s been collected that there are at least 100,000 to 125,000 [military] children who have disabilities of some sort.
Candace Cortiella: We know that military life presents several challenges that can complicate raising a child with special educational needs. What are some of these challenges?
Heather Hebdon: One thing that is a challenge for all of our military families is the requirement of the government that a military member needs to be mobile. The military runs on the ability to move personnel where they need them quickly and without a lot of difficulties or challenges. And so, we have these frequent moves. Until recently (within the last three years), moves would happen anytime from January through December. The military has taken more cautious look at that and, while we still see moves about every three to three-and-a-half years, we are seeing more and more of the military branches waiting for breaks [in the school year], such as winter break, and summer break, before they move the family. That way the child’s educational program isn’t disrupted as much. That has been a plus.
We also have the issue of deployment. Some of our civilian families face having a parent who has to go away or travel for their work. This can be very frightening and difficult for children, but they know, if nothing else, they can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Mom or Dad, just thinking of you and I miss you.” But in military families where a parent is deployed a number of factors come in to play. The first is the fear factor. These children, even kids with more significant disabilities, will pick up on the vibes in the home and will recognize the stressors which then exacerbate what their [own] issues are. For kids who have learning challenges many times their grades will plummet, and their behavior will escalate. There was a big study that looked at children with disabilities and it broke them into various age ranges to find out the impact of deployment. We found that it’s not so hard on children ages 3- to 5-years-old. At that age, they get some stressors, but they still are able to cope to a good extent. As they get into grade school they start seeing things like news flashes or teachers talking about the war, or their friends who are celebrating birthdays or Father’s Day and they are being asked to make a Father’s Day gift or Mother’s Day gift [for a parent who is deployed] and they know that they can’t send it. That’s when we start to see the problems escalate. So, deployment can be challenging.
[Also in regards to military families’ mobility, military] children will face within those moves the potential of being in not only Department of Education schools but also Department of Defense schools. And while both [school systems] have to comply with the act that is passed by Congress, the Department of Defense Education Activity must draft their own regulations to implement the act. They don’t go off of the federal regulations written by the U.S. Department of Education, so they don’t really know or have the comparison [with civilian regulations] that might help families to feel that [their specific needs] have been heard.
Candace Cortiella: How many children of military families attend the Department of Defense Education schools versus the regular public schools that serve the military bases where they are stationed?
Heather Hebdon: A [huge] percent of our kids attend public schools that are run through the U.S. Department of Education. When you’re looking at places like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Point (back in New York), those are locations that have these DDEF (Department of Defense Elementary and Secondary Systems) schools. You also have a DDEF type of school in Guam and Puerto Rico and those have been established for various reasons. The intent of those programs is to provide appropriate services. However, they were not required to even comply with the Individual of Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) until 1993. So they are newer to [asking] “How do we figure it out?” One thing I can say about them is that because they are newer, they did not have some of the roadblocks that I have seen in other states with regards to educating children with delays in the natural environment prior to three years old, which is a good thing. Our schools that are overseas, which are Department of Defense Dependent (DOD) schools, have had to comply with IDEA since 1983 — 10 full years before the schools here in the United States. So, approximately 20 percent of these kids are in those various [Department of Defense] systems. If you look at the states themselves, some of them have a higher percentage per capita, but they are all filled within the realm of what you would expect for about 80 percent of the population.