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Military Families: Additional DOD Actions Could Better Support Military Foster and Adoptive Families

GAO-21-438 Published: Aug 19, 2021. Publicly Released: Aug 19, 2021.
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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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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.


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)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Defense (DOD) updated its Military OneSource landing page to include information on parenting. Within the parenting page is centralized information about the agency's policies and available supports for military foster and adoptive families and those interested in fostering or adopting. Additionally, information includes recommended contacts for more information by military installation. DOD also developed a communication plan to promote awareness of Military OneSource foster and adoptive information and resources and completed tactics used to carry out its communication plan. This includes transmittal of a promotional flyer and newsletter, emails to service providers for the military services, an FAQ page, and various social media postings. We believe DOD's actions to centralize information about its policies and available supports for military foster and adoptive families will help meet the needs of this population.
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)
Closed – Implemented
In January 2024, the Department of Defense (DOD) provided updated guidance on the requirements for a foster child to be enrolled in DEERS. DOD's updates reflect published changes in the AFI 36-3026 that are consistent with DOD regulations on the required documents to enroll a foster child in DEERS. We believe these changes consistent with the regulations will help servicemembers and their families with a foster child gain access to supports and services for which they may be eligible to help meet their needs.
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)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Defense (DOD)'s Defense Human Resource Activity team identified content gaps in its annual Real-Time Automated Personnel Identification System (RAPIDS) workstation training and corrected content to accurately reflect required information on enrolling both foster and pre-adoptive children. The team deployed annual RAPIDS training in January 2023 and developed a related tip sheet for RAPIDS technicians. To inform the military services about updated RAPIDS training, the team used messages of the day and monthly newsletters. The military services promoted awareness of guidance for enrolling foster and pre-adoptive children through messages of the day, email distribution of newsletters and references to relevant regulations, and a pamphlet with related resources. We believe the updates made to the annual RAPIDS training and the promotion of updates and other related resources to RAPIDS technicians and the military departments will help ensure families have access to available services.

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