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Serving Veteran Family Members: The Invisible Children

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sidney Gardner and Larisa Owen
July 28, 2017

Sometimes in public administration the biggest challenge can be deciding which clients should be served. Who should receive benefits — for what problems?

Wax - blogimage_VeteransInitiativeBut some clients are more visible than others. Recently, children of veterans leaving service have become one of the least visible groups of at-risk children in the nation. More than 2.5 million members of the US military have served in combat zones since 9/11. Of these service members, 1.5 million have separated from service and are no longer able to access Defense Department services for their families. They are eligible, in some cases, for services from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But the VA exists primarily to support the veteran — not his or her family, except in cases of serious disability.

Families matter to most veterans. More than 73 percent of all post-9/11 veterans are married or have been married. A higher percentage of post-9/11 veterans are female.

Yet those families, including the estimated 1.2 million children of veterans who have left the service, in many cases have been directly affected by the visible and invisible effects of deployment. Many children of veterans are affected by their parents’ deployment, trauma and substance abuse. An estimated 30-35 percent of veterans suffer from overlapping trauma and substance use disorders, both of which can affect the entire family. Secondary trauma affecting the entire family has been documented among returning veterans, along with higher frequency of family stress and violence.

Among active duty military service members, 43 percent had two or more children. The VA does not have comparable numbers — a missing metric which underscores the nature of the problem. Neither the VA nor the Defense Department (DOD) has any data on numbers of veteran children, despite DoD having extensive information on dependents. The two agencies have almost no data interoperability, which handicaps state and local agencies trying to serve children of veterans.

The challenge is not getting the VA to do the job with children and other family members — they are struggling to serve veterans today. But the federal government annually spends more than $470 billion on programs that benefit children. So the task is to get veterans’ children their fair share of these programs when they need them. That requires active outreach to those agencies on behalf of veterans’ family members.

The good news is, in some communities, children of veterans have become more visible, and networks of children and family serving agencies have begun to step up to paying more attention to these children affected by their parents’ deployment. Part of that challenge is building an up-to-date inventory of programs that serve veterans and their families — as well as those that could.

The second challenge is caring enough to count, and recognizing you can’t coordinate what you can’t count. The hopeful news here is that the Veterans Accountability Act recently signed by the President included a new initiative to get the DoD and the VA to connect their data systems, after many years of siloed operations. If that really happens, what DoD knows about dependents could be made available to the VA with appropriate privacy safeguards. At the very least, that would mean that we would have a better idea of the total number of post-9/11 children of veterans.

The third challenge for these agencies is to know their clients well enough to be able to engage them in the services they need. Clients are not all the same, as any good agency recognizes. Some clients resent and resist being seen as clients, preferring a self-image of independence and self-sufficiency to any appearance of dependence. Military culture accentuates this tendency, as it instills a can-do, “I’ve got this” outlook.  Asking for help is seen as weakness, sometimes. And so service agencies need to understand these attitudes and master the skills of motivational interviewing and client engagement. Detailed screening and assessment tools may be much less effective than a simple question: “How are your kids doing?” Peer navigators, used increasingly in services to veterans, bring skills and perspectives able to respond to these challenges.

The bottom line isn’t complicated. No child of a veteran should be worse off because that child’s parent served his or her country.

Next month’s article will discuss the Veterans Treatment Courts and approaches to new forms of outreach to children and families of those veterans enrolled in VTCs. This framework and the sources for this article are discussed in more detail at www.cffutures.org

Author: Mr. Gardner is President of Children and Family Futures. He has over 50 years of experience working in and with local, state and national government agencies, educational institutions and public policy organizations.  He graduated from Occidental College and received a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Princeton University and a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Hartford Seminary. Sidney Gardner, MPA [email protected]

Author: Dr. Owen is a Program Director with the Center for Children and Family Futures (CCFF) since 2004.  Dr. Owen serves as a Veterans and Special Projects Program Director who works on several programs including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization in addition to research and evaluation of VMF projects. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law. Larisa Owen, PhD, MBA [email protected]

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