The U.S. Coast Guard offers child care programs to its personnel, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says it has only a limited number of on-base child care centers. As a result, Coast Guard families generally rely on community-based child care providers.
Compared to the Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard) operates proportionally fewer on-base child development centers, GAO found, but most eligible Coast Guard personnel receive fee assistance to help them obtain child care through community-based providers. According to GAO’s analysis of agency data, the Coast Guard serves 82 percent of enrolled children through community-based providers who participate in its Fee Assistance program. In contrast, DOD serves 77 percent of enrolled children in its on-base child development centers.
Most DOD and Coast Guard child development centers (CDC) have waitlists and as of March 2022, the Coast Guard and DOD reported having 361 and 14,034 children, respectively, on waitlists; most of these children were infants and toddlers.
Certain requirements limit the capacity of CDCs operated by the Coast Guard and DOD. For example, for infant care, both Coast Guard and DOD require at least one staff member for every four infants with no more than eight infants in a room. Coast Guard and DOD also must meet minimum requirements for square footage of CDCs, both inside and outside (e.g., the playground) as well as other building specifications.
Coast Guard officials told GAO that as access to universal prekindergarten continues to expand across the country, they expect enrollment at CDCs serving preschoolers to decline.
Coast Guard officials also told GAO that due to the dispersed nature of its personnel across the country and long waitlists for CDC care, the Fee Assistance program is the most effective way to support its active duty personnel in obtaining affordable child care. However, GAO said families enrolled in Fee Assistance programs, like many families seeking child care, may face challenges obtaining care when there are limited spaces available at community-based providers in their area. Coast Guard families reported facing challenges related to a limited supply of community-based child care generally. Among 25 Coast Guard locations featured in a needs assessment’s analysis of child care supply and demand, nine locations were considered “child care deserts,” where the supply of child care was only able to serve 33 percent or less of the total number of children from birth to age five.
A third, less-used program that DOD and Coast Guard offer is the Family Child Care program in which military families provide in-home child care to their children and children of other military families. However, DOD and Coast Guard have experienced a significant decrease in the number of certified Family Child Care providers, which has led to fewer families being able to use this type of care. Coast Guard officials reported that in fiscal year 2019, they had 19 Family Child Care providers, but as of March 2022, they only had five providers serving 20 children, with an additional five providers in process to be approved. Coast Guard provides assistance to this program to help providers but has noted that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the number of families taking part. Coast Guard told GAO that it will continue to try to recruit providers into the program and plan to certify additional providers by June 2022.
GAO determined that Coast Guard is working to increase access to quality child care by planning facility improvements and centralizing information for families. In a March 2022 report to Congress, the Coast Guard stated that it plans to build four new child development centers and to renovate existing ones, which will provide access to on-base child care for more families. The Coast Guard has also centralized and updated online information to help families find child care in their communities. In addition, the Coast Guard increased Fee Assistance subsidy amounts to help make child care more affordable, especially for families who live in high-cost areas.