December 16, 2011

Help For Military Kids: New Programs, Outreach

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Government, business, social service and military leaders are working together on strategies to ensure that the nearly 10,000 children of active-duty military in Connecticut get help and support when they need it, particularly children of members of the National Guard and Reserves.

The plan, to cover the next 10 years, reflects an expectation that there will be continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and recognition that repercussions such as traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can take months or years to manifest themselves, and repeated deployments of Guard members and Reservists often result in significant reductions in salaries from their civilian jobs.

All of these issues can devastate families and be “unsettling for children,” said Kathleen O’Beirne, of Groton, one of the leaders of the effort. “We want them [children] to be able to go to school and be prepared to learn.  That’s our thrust.”

The proposals, developed with help from the nonprofit Military Child Education Coalition, include:

• Proposing that the state require schools to have parents indicate on annual school registration forms if they are in the military so teachers and counselors can be more attuned to potential problems, and including a welcome to military children in school handbooks distributed to parents.

• Establishing a database in the State Department of Education, starting next September, to reflect numbers of military kids and the schools they attend (personal information would not be recorded).

• Inserting information sheets in utility bills, bank statements, and state employees’ paychecks about where military families can get help and what other community members can do to help them.

• Airing public service announcements on radio and TV; and wide dissemination of DVDs of programs focused on issues affecting military children.

•  Forming a speakers’ bureau of experts on military kids to address civic clubs and other groups.

The proposals are designed to help locate military children because parents don’t always tell schools of their service status, to raise awareness of the potential difficult issues military kids can face, and ensure that they get help.

O’Beirne, a member of the national coalition’s board and Connecticut’s public engagement steering committee, cited such problems as alcohol and drug abuse by wounded warriors who are trying to cope with their pain, reckless driving and accidents with their children because they were used to driving aggressively while in combat, and personality changes.  “All of this impacts the child. The child is the end consumer of this,” O’Beirne said in an interview.

In Connecticut, about 100 people representing constituencies ranging from the Connecticut PTA and the Girl Scouts to Bank of America and Dominion, a power company, met for a two-day “public engagement.”  They developed proposals to help military children and participated in training about the lives of military children and families, including effects on families of serious injuries borne by more than 40,000 wounded warriors from around the country and of some 6,700 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

New London County – where the Navy and Coast Guard bases are located in southeastern Connecticut – has the highest concentration of military kids at 4,935.  In Hartford County there are 1,623; New Haven County, 1,259; Middlesex County, 385 and the rest are scattered around the state, according to coalition numbers.

O’Beirne said that children of parents assigned to the Navy and Coast Guard bases have easy access to support because of programs at the bases. National Guard and Reservists’ children don’t have such base support. Reservists’ families often feel most isolated because Reservists units often train in different states from their homes.

“The Reservists are the most scattered and have the least sense of others being in the same boat with them. Their communities just don’t know where they are,” O’Beirne said.

The coalition is planning three free training sessions for school counselors, psychologists and others who work with military children and families. People interested in attending the sessions, “Living in the New Normal” should go to the coalition’s website, www. militarychild.org. The 2011 sessions are scheduled for Jan. 21 in Windsor, April 26 and 27 in Shelton, and May 22 and 23 in Newport, R.I.

“ A big challenge is helping families determine what the ‘new normal’ will be for them,” said O’Beirne.

The Military Child Education Coalition has been hired by the U.S. Department of Defense to develop plans for military children in every state.  So far, 17 states have done so.

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