Barbara Thompson, director of the Department of Defense's Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth, discusses the impacts that prolonged deployment of a parent or sibling can have on children. This is one of three podcasts produced in collaboration with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
The following is a transcript:
SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi, I'm Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation and this is one in a series of special podcasts the Center is doing with the support and assistance of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which is hosting its 74th conference in New York in July 2011. I'm speaking with Barbara Thompson, director of the Department of Defense's Office of Family Policy, Children, and Youth, which gives her responsibility over the Department of Defense Child Development and Youth Programs, serving 700,000 children at over 300 locations worldwide. It's interesting that we have someone from the Department of Defense at this judges conference. What brings you to the conference today?
BARBARA THOMPSON: Well I was invited by one of our legal aides, Colonel Sean Shumake, who felt it was really important for family judges to know some of the issues that are facing military families and to help them be aware of the support systems that are available. Less than one percent of our population serves in uniform and so it behooves the 99 percent of us who benefit from their sacrifice, that we are contributing to their well being, and that takes a community to do that.
SCHWEIG: And so what types of challenges are service members and their families facing today?
THOMPSON: These are unprecedented times for the military. We have been in combat for almost 10 years, and the strain and the stress on the service members and their families is really very high. Many of our service members have faced multiple deployments for long periods of time, which makes it hard for the stay-at-home parent to deal with all of the issues as a single parent versus the couple that they were. And children are particularly vulnerable because of their developmental stages, being separated from an important adult in their life for such long periods of time.
SCHWEIG: What is the impact on youth and children in these families of military service members?
THOMPSON: I would like to say first, I feel and I think very strongly that our military families are very resilient, and they are very proud and very rarely ask for help. And our children, in particular, are sacrificing long periods of time with one of their parents, which is—or a big brother, even, a sibling, you know? These are important adults in their lives and to—even though we have Skype and we have computer connectivity, it's not the same as missing your high school graduation, missing your birthday, missing the holidays, missing big events in your life that that special parent is not there with you. And so we are concerned that children are having some challenging behaviors and we worry about our teens in particular, who are at a point in their lives that they can make risky decisions and engage in risky behaviors. And again, I would behoove the judicial system, when they have a young person in their court, to ask if somebody in their family is serving or has been deployed. I think that, again, that's one of those indicators that maybe this child just needs some extra help to get through.
SCHWEIG: So what kinds of supports are available for service members and their families to address these unique needs?
THOMPSON: Well there's a very robust family support system, especially for our active duty force. We have a systemic approach and an infrastructure on the installations. What became a challenge for those of us who serve military families is how do we reach our guard and reservists, who have stepped up to the plate to be brothers in arms, sisters in arms with the active duty force for Operation Enduring Freedom and for Operation Iraqi Freedom. So they're dispersed throughout the entire country and even the four territories, and we don't have that brick and mortar infrastructure for them. So we've done some pretty innovative programs—one of them is called Military OneSource, which is a 1-800, 24/7, 365 day-a-year information and assistance call and website where families and service members, regardless of their activation status, can call and receive support. A master's level counselor answers the phone. You never get a recording, and they have varied services, such as face-to-face telephonic and web-based non-medical counseling. So if you need to talk to somebody about a challenging issue in your life such as communicating with your teen, or anger management, or stress management, there are licensed clinicians available to support you. They also offer financial counseling. They offer healthy coaching, and there's a wide variety of educational materials on the website that can support military families.
Two of the programs particularly geared for the guard and reserve: one is the joint family support assistance program. We were mandated by law in 2007 to set up a program to support the geographically dispersed. We've partnered with the National Guard Bureau to actually set up teams of licensed clinicians, financial counselors, and a Military OneSource consultant at each state headquarters to support the state family program director. And that way we can reach out to those families who are located in the states.
We have another program called the military family life counselor program—again, non-medical counselors. It's family support, it's prevention. We are gonna make sure we have very qualified people to be able to read the red flags. So if it is going to escalate to something more serious than just life coaching, that they know those red flags and can then refer them to a more of an intervention with medical professionals. And we augment the yellow ribbon events, which are events that are, again, mandated by congress to support returning guard and reservists at the 30/60/90 day mark to make sure, hands-on, eyes-on that they are doing okay, they are readjusting back into society.
SCHWEIG: Do you want to say something about how these programs maybe team up with those courts? That might be an interesting sort of innovative collaboration.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think it's really exciting. A new field for me, in particular, is interested in military families and is interested in our young veterans who are very young, coming back from combat and reintegrating into the civilian society. And they're coming back with some issues. And I think the more the court system understands those issues, it can be a support to find and connect them with the right resources to help them as they strive to reach a level of normalcy that takes time.
SCHWEIG: We mentioned family court but how do your programs and initiatives relate to veteran-specific courts?
THOMPSON: You know, we work very closely with the VA and we know that they have a remarkable and wonderful infrastructure of vet centers across the country. I think there are over 250. They are staffed with veterans, they're staffed with licensed clinicians, and they offer free counseling, not only to the service member, but also to their family. And again, if the court system knows about these vet centers and knows about the vet courts, they, again, can be able to communicate the issues that they're facing, be more aware of some of those challenges, and then find the right resources. I think it would be very sad that we don't ask somebody who is in jail, “Have you served? Did you just get back from deployment?”
SCHWEIG: If there's one thing you want professionals and the general public to remember about the time we're in and military families, what kind of role the community might need to have?
THOMPSON: We are just unbelievably astounded by the level of support we're receiving from the White House, from the congress on taking care of military member and their families, and Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden have both made it a part of their administration that we need to build awareness of the issues facing military families. And two thirds of our active duty live off of the installation. So they are in our communities. All of our guard and reservists live in our communities. We need to be asking, “Do you serve? Are you a member of the military?” And know if your neighbor has a deployed spouse, that you can be there to do some of the little things to take off some of that sacrifice and that burden. And I think judges are particularly in a position of making the entire community, whether it's the faith-based community, whether it's law enforcement, whether it's systems in place to be able to say, we need to reach out to the members in our community who have sacrificed so much for our freedom and our well-being, and we need to give back to those families.
SCHWEIG: Excellent. If you want to learn more about some of these initiatives, where do you suggest that the public or court professionals look?
THOMPSON: Well, there are two avenues to find that out. One is just Google "military homefront," and that's our official quality of life portal, which lists all of our programs, lists all of the regulations and information about military families. And for those interested parties who want to share resources with military families, I would suggest that they learn about Military OneSource, which is militaryonesource.com. It's all one word. And then the 1-800 number is 1-800-342-9647.
SCHWEIG: Excellent. Well thanks so much for speaking with me today. I'm Sarah Schweig, and I've been speaking with Barbara Thompson, director of the Office of Family Policy, Children, and Youth, about the Department of Defense's programs for military families. This podcast was jointly sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Center for Court Innovation. To find more about the National Council, you can visit their website at www.ncjfcj.org. The Center for Court Innovation's website is at www.courtinnovation.org. Thank you for listening.