Fast Facts

The Department of Defense offers programs and services that can help active-duty servicemembers who foster or adopt a child. But, most military foster and adoptive families aren't aware of all of the help they can get from DOD.

In addition, key parts of DOD's guidance are inconsistent with regulations on enrolling foster children in the military benefits system. Enrollment personnel's lack of experience with foster and pre-adoptive cases also may limit access to these services. As a result, some families may be missing out on services they are eligible for.

We recommended actions that DOD can take to address these issues.

A servicemember in fatigues holding a child with a small American flag in her hand.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

National data from the Department of Defense (DOD) between 2016 and 2020 suggest that very few military families—2,174—fostered or sought to adopt relative to the total active-duty servicemember population, which was 1.3 million in 2019. The distribution of servicemembers by service branch who fostered or sought to adopt was generally similar to the distribution of the overall servicemember population, with more Army servicemembers fostering or seeking to adopt. These servicemembers were also deployed at a similar rate as the overall active-duty servicemember population. Officers fostered or sought to adopt children at over three times the rate of enlisted servicemembers.

DOD, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and selected state and local agencies provide some targeted supports to assist military families who foster or adopt, such as adoption-related leave (see figure). Other DOD supports, such as non-medical counseling and Children and Youth programs, are available to all military families, including foster and adoptive families. However, military and child welfare officials and families GAO interviewed reported limited awareness of available military supports, which are spread across multiple programs and offices. Absent efforts to centralize and promote available supports, DOD may be missing an opportunity to meet the needs of foster and adoptive families.

Targeted and Other Supports Available to Military Foster and Adoptive Families

Targeted and Other Supports Available to Military Foster and Adoptive Families

Almost all military families GAO interviewed reported frequent moves, deployments, or enrollment in DOD's benefits system as challenges to fostering and adopting. Many families said moves or deployments resulted in delays or interruptions in the foster or adoption process, which child welfare officials GAO interviewed said they were sometimes able to mitigate, such as by expediting the adoption process or allowing a deployed parent to complete required training virtually. In addition, 12 of the 29 families GAO interviewed reported challenges enrolling their foster or pre-adoptive child in the DOD system that allows the child to obtain certain military benefits and services, which they said caused delays or prevented many families from accessing such services. DOD issued guidance on enrolling children in its system, but we found key parts of the guidance related to enrolling foster children to be inconsistent with DOD regulations. In addition, most DOD officials GAO spoke with at selected installations who are responsible for enrollments said they have little experience enrolling either foster or pre-adoptive children. Until DOD revises the guidance on enrolling foster children to ensure consistency with regulations and promotes awareness of eligibility and documentation requirements for enrolling both foster and pre-adoptive children in DOD's benefits system, foster and adoptive families may continue to face challenges obtaining services for which they are eligible.

Why GAO Did This Study

Active-duty servicemembers in the U.S. military may expand their family by fostering or adopting a child from the foster care system, or through a private adoption. A U.S. House of Representatives Committee report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to examine these families.

This report examines (1) the number and characteristics of military foster and adoptive servicemembers, (2) what foster- and adoption-related supports federal, and selected state and local agencies provide to military families and families' use of supports, and (3) challenges these families face. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance and analyzed data on active-duty servicemembers. GAO conducted virtual visits with officials at a nongeneralizable group of four military installations, and with officials at state and local agencies involved in foster care and adoption in four states, selected for a high number of active-duty members and varying installation sizes and geographic locations. GAO held virtual discussion groups with 29 military foster and adoptive families. GAO also interviewed officials from DOD, HHS, and national organizations.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations to DOD: to centralize information on available supports, revise guidance on enrolling a foster child in its benefits system, and promote awareness of guidance on enrolling foster and pre-adoptive children. DOD generally agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should provide a centralized location for and promote awareness of information about foster and adoption-related policies and available DOD supports to better assist military foster and adoptive families. For example, the Secretary of Defense could provide such information through Military OneSource, using a designated point person on an installation, or through an existing installation program office. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD generally agreed with this recommendation. The Department stated that it will explore opportunities to enhance existing information on foster and adoptive resources on Military OneSource and promote awareness of these resources. DOD also stated that it will ensure the Secretaries of the military departments explore the identification of an installation level office or point of contact for foster and adoptive family assistance. We will consider closing this recommendation when these efforts to address it are implemented.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Secretary of the Air Force revise AFI 36-3026, Volume 1, in cooperation with other DOD components as appropriate, to make it consistent with Department of Defense regulations on the required documents to enroll foster children in DEERS. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD agreed with this recommendation and that foster- and adoption-related policy developed and implemented by the Secretaries of the military departments should be consistent with DOD's policy. The Secretary of the Air Force should take the lead to revise the AFI, in cooperation with other DOD components as appropriate. We will consider closing this recommendation when the AFI is revised to ensure consistency.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Secretaries of the military departments identify opportunities to regularly promote awareness of accurate information and guidance that includes accurate information on enrolling both foster and pre-adoptive children to all staff responsible for DEERS enrollments. For example, the military departments could coordinate with relevant offices to promote awareness of the guidance through annual trainings or other training mechanisms. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD agreed with this recommendation to promote awareness of guidance that includes accurate information on enrolling both foster and pre-adoptive children in DEERS. DOD stated that it will ensure steps are taken to examine department-wide training and evaluate operational guidance for the personnel responsible for DEERS enrollment. The Secretaries of the military departments, which oversee the operation of sites that are responsible for DEERS enrollment, will be responsible for promoting awareness of this information. We will monitor the progress of these efforts.

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