11/05/2013 01:12 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Military families need more home-front help, ombudsman says

Canada's military ombudsman says the Canadian Forces need to provide more support to spouses and children of military personnel to minimize the disruptive effect their career has on fundamental aspects of family life, such as employment, health care, housing and child care.

In a report released Tuesday called On the Homefront: Assessing the Well-Being of Canada's Military Families in the New Millennium, Pierre Daigle urges the government to think more about how military life affects the lives of spouses and children of personnel.

Frequent moves, long deployments and the risks that come with the job all take a toll not just on soldiers but on their loved ones, Daigle says.

He points out that while after 20 years of a "war footing" and near constant deployment to overseas operations, support for Canadian military personnel and their families is at an all-time high, there remains much room for improvement.

"Families are not looking for shortcuts or handouts or preferential treatment of any sort," Daigle writes. "They are simply looking for an opportunity to raise a family in a relatively stable, nurturing family environment."

Frequent relocation disruptive

The report highlights the frequent relocations that are an inherent part of military life as the factor that poses the greatest challenge for families.

"The requirement for military families to pick up and move on a recurring basis has a highly disruptive influence on family life," Daigle writes in the report.

"In the view of many commanders, service providers and observers, it is the single most unsettling feature of the CF lifestyle."

For example, because military families move frequently, they often have to switch health care coverage from province to province, making it difficult to get to the front of the line when it comes to waiting lists for tests and procedures, leading to delays in treatment and care.

The report says military families are four times less likely to have a family doctor than other Canadians. They also relocate three times more frequently than civilians.

In the interviews with 370 current or recently retired military families conducted for the report, many people said they take leave and travel to their previous postings to consult their former physicians because they have not secured doctors in their current locations. 

Spouses face job hurdles

Daigle points out similar problems when it comes to education, child care and opportunities for career advancement .

"Many CF spouses are neither working nor seeking employment because they are resigned to the necessity of providing stability and continuity on the home front," the report says. "For others who possess limited employment options often tied to low wage employment, there is little choice but to remain at home caring for their children because the cost of child care results in negligible or no net financial gain for the family."

Such situations can put a great strain on relationships, Daigle says.

"Most non-serving partners communicated their abject frustration at having to make most, if not all, of the professional compromises required to raise a family once children were introduced into the equation," he said.

Children are also affected by military life in a multitude of ways, from disruption in their schooling and social life to the psychological and emotional effects of separation and a parent's deployment to high-risk areas.

The report also found that children of deployed military members had more physical problems, "including increased stress, sleeping problems and more than double the rate of occurrence of other ailments compared to similar children within the civilian population."

"Families and providers/supporters repeatedly conveyed situations of healthy children becoming sick during deployments," the report said.

Military housing outdated

Housing is another key obstacle highlighted in the report.

"The wide disparity in the quality of military housing, coupled with the fluctuations in rent charged from one location to another, is having a negative impact on the life of military families," the report says.

Most military housing is outdated and plagued by problems such as mould, water leaks, limited space, electrical issues and outdated kitchens. As of April 2013, only 0.6 per cent of the 12,248 units that make up the Defence department's housing portfolio is new construction.

"The bulk of existing units were built between 1948 and 1960," Daigle writes.

Financial challenges are another area of stress for military families. Although they are better compensated than in the past, many of today's military families are struggling financially, Daigle said.

"Many military families are experiencing discernible financial strain due to a combination of factors inherent in CF life, including frequent relocations, the challenge of spousal employment, fluctuating and inconsistent allowances and benefits, the incidental effects of separation and deployment, pronounced health and child care imperatives, and the varying cost of housing," the report found

At the same time, financial counselling provided by the military has been cut back because of budget constraints.

"It is apparent that the amount of structured financial education currently provided to many military members is insufficient, considering the amount of financial distress the office [of the ombudsman] has observed," the report said.

Modernizing military services

Daigle makes several recommendations in his report on how the military could modernize its current practices and improve the services provided to families.

On housing, for example, he suggests setting a cap on rental increases pegged to the life cycle of housing units and the renovations carried out in the units. He encourages the military to review the housing delivery and governance model completely  to "ensure military housing at least meets societal norms."

He also suggests doing more to facilitate home ownership and working with the communities attached to military bases to improve transportation networks.

The report also outlines various ways the military could minimize the disruption caused by deployments, including providing travel and/or financial assistance for a member of the extended family to travel to a military family’s household to help the parent left alone during deployments and extended separations.

It urges the military to do more to help spouses of military personnel find employment, including providing programs to help spouses upgrade their job skills, education or language training.

Focus misguided

Providing tangible training, tools and financial support to promote and enable entrepreneurship would also help, the report suggests, as would partnering with other government departments and professional and corporate entities outside the military in order to encourage the hiring of military spouses and remove barriers to getting professional accreditation recognized.

Past systemic reviews of support for military families have posed the rhetorical question "How much is enough?" when assessing whether to make adjustments to services.

Daigle says this focus is misguided.

"It is clear that from an institutional perspective, the attention is focused on what is in place, in comparison to what was (or more precisely was not) in place in the past," he writes in his conclusion. "Regrettably, this is the wrong question the institution should pose.

"The question that needs to be addressed is, 'What do military families need?'"