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Support improves for families with special needs

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airman & Family Support is one of the Year of the Air Force Family's four Pillars of Excellence. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Steve Heuring)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airman & Family Support is one of the Year of the Air Force Family's four Pillars of Excellence. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Steve Heuring)

WASHINGTON -- Officials are working to boost the resources and support the Defense Department's Exceptional Family Member Program provides to military families with special needs.

"Most people are aware of EFMP as a mandatory enrollment program, but we're working to raise awareness of the family support we can provide," said Rebecca Posante, communications director for the Pentagon's Office of Military Community and Family Policy.

Military families with special needs are asked to enroll in the program so their requirements can be taken into consideration for future assignments. Parents of a child with major medical needs, for instance, are stationed at an installation near a hospital that can accommodate those needs.

"The program is to prevent you from getting in a situation where your family can't get appropriate care," Ms. Posante said. "Your asthma may be controlled here, but not at a place overseas. You might not know that and unknowingly be put in a life-threatening situation. The goal is to protect the family."

While the assignment component is standard throughout the services, each branch offers a varying level of family support, and the resultant family services are inconsistent at best, Ms. Posante acknowledged. For instance, some bases have one program specialist and others have up to seven.

"The Marine Corps and Army have plussed up their programs, but it really depends on the passion and the staffing at the installations," she said.

On a positive note, she said, changes are on the horizon.

The fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Barack Obama in October, mandates a standard program to support military families with special needs, establishes a Defense Department Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs and requires a comprehensive policy on support to families.

While changes lie ahead, Ms. Posante said, she is working in the meantime to put the resources in place to ensure success.

Last month, DOD officials sponsored the first joint exceptional family member support conference in Jacksonville, Fla. Ms. Posante said the conference was a definite success, and that she equipped family support personnel with tools they "could take back and use on Monday."

She noted these same tools also are offered online for families.

A Parent ToolKit, available on the Military OneSource site, offers information and resources to aid parents of special-needs children, taking them from birth to 21 years old. It includes a list of support organizations, sample forms and letters, and other resources.

To supplement the toolkit, Military Homefront offers hundreds of resources online, listed by state, that parents can use to pinpoint a local program.

The Special Care Organizational Record for Children With Special Health Care Needs, also available on Military OneSource, is a binder where parents can store all health care-related information pertaining to their child, from medications and allergies to doctors' business cards and receipts. It also can be used for special-needs adults.

"Imagine if you were a parent and one day you couldn't take care of your child, (and) someone would have to step in and care for that child," said Isabel Hodge, family support program manager for the Pentagon's Office of Military Community and Family Policy. "This gives them what they need to know. It's a set of instructions."

"It's not your official medical record," Ms. Posante added. "But it's something you can take with you as you move (or go) to different appointments. You can take it with you and share with doctors to aid in care."

Ms. Posante also urges parents of special-needs family members to take advantage of Military OneSource's specialty consultations for adult and special needs children by calling 1-800-342-9647.

With the program's new legislation and resources, Ms. Posante said, she hopes families will remember to associate the Exceptional Family Member Program with more than just assignments. She wants them to equate the program with family support.

"Enrollment is for your protection. This is a big benefit to our families," she said. "But we also can help support your family. Seek out your EFMP coordinator at your family center; that person knows the area; they can get you the right information. We want our families to know (that) we know the system, and we can help."