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Military Families Overseas Struggle to Get Services for Children With Disabilities

While families in the United States sometimes struggle to get the right diagnoses and services for their children with disabilities, a new report from the Government Accountability Office highlights the special challenges families in the military face.

Overseas, Department of Defense schools offer widely varying services, the GAO said. For example, DOD schools in Ramstein, Germany, can serve children with severe disabilities of any type, but schools in some other overseas locations don't have any special education programs at all.

Although the Department of Defense recently created an office of special needs to help these families, the office is still working on improving screening and overseas assignment of military families with special needs, the GAO said. The office has limited authority to force different branches of the military to act, and the Defense Department doesn't have benchmarks and performance goals for how programs created for these families should work. "Without overall performance information to proactively identify emerging problem areas, some of the branches have had to conduct investigations to address problems after they have arisen," the report says.

Part of the challenge has been that each branch of the military has its own processes for screening military families and deploying members to places where schools can meet their families' needs. But the needs and the schools don't always match, in part because of ineffective screenings. For example, we found one case in which a school that only had programs in place for students with mild disabilities received a student with severe needs who had not been educationally screened. So the GAO recommended that the secretary of defense ensure all military branches screen school-age children for medical and educational needs before relocating their families oversees.

Families the GAO interviewed were generally satisfied with services for their children once they got those services, but they had concerns about the limited availability of special education and medical specialists. (The idea of private school vouchers doesn't seem to be a solution for these families. And that idea never became a reality, anyway.) While the military branches provide family support services, parents in our focus groups also indicated they lacked information about obtaining special education and related medical services. DOD is taking some steps to provide better information to families, but the extent to which these efforts are helping them is unclear.

The GAO also recommends that the military's office of special needs creates benchmarks and performance goals for the Exceptional Family Member program, which works with all military families who have a member with a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability.

And the office of special needs must create and implement a way to ensure branches' compliance with that program's requirements.

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