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Creating safe places ‘This is the Air Force. … We have standards for everything’

Tech. Sgt. Julie Dumlao greets her 2-month-old baby, Lee, at the Child Development Center  at Fairchild Air Force Base.
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Tech. Sgt. Julie Dumlao greets her 2-month-old baby, Lee, at the Child Development Center at Fairchild Air Force Base. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When Raquela Davis had to return to work after her six weeks of maternity leave, she was worried about the kind of care new daughter Makaile would get.

She had the same worries that most new mothers would have: “Are they going to be able to take care of her like I take care of her?”

Davis’ boss has a policy of not extending maternity leave beyond six weeks except for emergency circumstances, and that policy is particularly strict in the busy times in which it now finds itself. But her boss also provides some of the best-run and best-regulated child care in the country.

Her boss is the U.S. Air Force. While the military can ill afford to extend maternity leaves with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does offer the 22-year-old senior airman and other military and civilian personnel at Fairchild Air Force Base the kind of child care that allows them to report for work in the morning – or even odd hours of the night or day – with confidence.

Davis can keep track of her daughter’s progress on a series of charts and reports, come to the base’s Child Development Center to hold her daughter during lunch and breaks, and drop in any time.

“They have a camera where you can view what’s going on in here,” Davis said as she rocked 3-month-old Makaile one afternoon last week in one of the center’s infant rooms.

The center has standards for what each of the roughly 220 children in its care should be eating and learning and how they should be developing and socializing. It has standards for the ratio of day-care workers to children based on the children’s ages, and standards for training for the workers.

“This is the Air Force,” Davis said with a smile as she held the pink-clad baby against her green camouflage uniform. “We have standards for everything.”

Setting those standards and enforcing them at government- sponsored facilities throughout the military has prompted child- development experts to rank the Defense Department day care as the best in the nation.

When the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reviewed standards and oversight across the country recently, it split Defense Department facilities out from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Military day care placed at the top of the list for both standards and oversight; no state made the top five in both lists.

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, told The Spokesman-Review last month that the military took a congressional mandate in the 1980s to improve its child care and created the premier system in the country.

The Defense Department understands that child care is important for two reasons, Shonkoff told Associate Editor Jamie Tobias Neely, who interviewed him in conjunction with the paper’s “Our Kids: Our Business” project against child abuse.

“One is that in order for soldiers, men and women, to do their job every day they have to be confident that their children are well cared for while they’re at work,” he said. “And also … a large percentage of soldiers come from military families. So the military is investing in its future work force.”

At Fairchild, the improvements included spending $4.6 million in the mid-1990s to build the Child Development Center. The Air Force also buys equipment including the cribs in the nurseries, the chairs and desks in the preschool classrooms, the cameras and monitors throughout the facility, and a kitchen that serves up to 400 meals a day.

It sets a sliding scale for fees based on family income, between $61 and $129 per week. That’s for 10 hours of care per day, but if the boss needs you for more than 10 hours because of an exercise or inspection, there’s no extra charge.

Stacy Compton, Fairchild CDC director, said the military attitude toward children might once have been summed up in the old saying, “If the Air Force wanted you to have a child, they would have issued you one.” But in the past 20 years, that’s changed.

“The military has decided they reach for excellence in all that they do. They decided people who are serving their country should be given the best (in child care), too,” Compton said.

Each child – even babies in the 6-weeks-to-6-months nurseries – has a chart, a calendar and a “curriculum” that is monitored. For an infant, the curriculum might be something like whether she’s holding her head up or tracking a toy with her eyes as it’s moved across her field of vision. Older children learn to socialize with others and prepare for kindergarten.

Individual plans for each child are set up after discussion with the parents, who get regular updates, Compton said.

When Master Sgt. Bill Bowers and Tech. Sgt. Amy Friberg adopted a child from China, she couldn’t speak English, and they were afraid she would be isolated in day care. The center set up a special plan to help her fit in with other children her age.

“They went out of their way to work with her,” Friberg said.

Master Sgt. Lynn Howard, who has had three children in base day care at different times of their lives, said she likes how structured the system is.

“Safety is huge here,” Howard said. “There are cameras everywhere. There’s never any closed rooms (to parents).”

The center has a staff of about 63, and many start with the basic requirements of holding a high school diploma, being able to read and write English and passing a background check. But the military holds its day-care workers to standards, also, Compton said. They must complete training “modules” to improve their skills. “They must grow, and they must learn. Or they must go,” Compton said.

Enforcing strict standards is what sets the military apart, the national child care association said. Once a year, Compton said, the development center gets a surprise inspection from out-of-town Air Force officials who spend three or four days checking on a list of about 200 items involving such topics as health, safety, curriculum and staff development.

The military also licenses workers and sets standards and enforces them for in-home day care on bases.

Treasea Landreth, who operates Just For Kids family child care, is licensed for six children – five plus her son – in her home on Fairchild.

Landreth was in college working on a degree in education about six years ago when her son was born. Her husband was deployed in the wake of Sept. 11, and she decided to offer day care for a few years until her son started school.

To do that on base, she had to undergo a security check, get insurance and enroll in training classes. The more training she completed, the more children she was allowed to accept and the more she was allowed to charge. Twice named an outstanding day-care provider on the base, Landreth now serves as a mentor for new day-care providers.

Typically, she works from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but her hours are flexible because military jobs start and end at odd times: “I have worked all hours.”

In an alcove off her front door, Landreth keeps the paperwork needed for a military-sanctioned day care – a binder with information on each of the children she watches, sheets for parents to sign their children in and out, checklists of family contacts and emergency medical care. She files a monthly curriculum plan and a monthly menu, and she gets surprise inspections to see if she’s serving what’s on the menu. There’s also an annual fire inspection.

There are pluses, too. The base lends her furniture the children use, the shelves for their books and games, and even some play equipment they can use in the backyard.

Some day she hopes to be a teacher, but for now, Landreth said, she likes the business aspect of day care and the chance to work with children. But she realizes military day care is not for everyone – the majority of the people who sign up for the first round of training never complete it, she said.