Marine Corps seeks better bang for its buck in family support programs

Monday - 10/21/2013, 3:51am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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Like the rest of the military, the Marine Corps has put a lot of emphasis on building support programs for servicemembers and their families to help manage through the last 12 years of high-tempo deployments. But like everything else in the Defense budget, the service is likely to have to scale these programs back from their heady wartime days.

The Marine Corps says warfighting always will be its first priority. A close second, though, is ensuring quality of life for servicemembers and their families. But there's definitely not a guarantee that the support programs the military has built over the past dozen years will survive the next several years of budget cuts, said Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the Marine Corps' director of marine and family programs.

He said his service, like the rest of the military, tried out a lot of new ideas when DoD was flush with cash. It now needs to demand proof that those programs actually are having an effect on the problems they were meant to solve, such as high suicide rates, behavioral health challenges and the long-term impact of repeated deployments on servicemembers' children.

"There are a tremendous number of programs out there. Does anybody truly have a handle on whether they're synchronized? Are they integrated? Are they effective? Have they been vetted by independent experts? I am all for more programs as long as you can show the effectiveness and the efficiency of it," Sanborn said.

Sanborn spoke at the Brookings Institution, which just released an updated journal in an ongoing project with Princeton University called "The Future of Children." Among the authors' many conclusions: DoD rolled out a huge number of support programs for military families and children during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but very few of them appear to be based on any scientific evidence of what works and what doesn't. And almost none of them have been evaluated after they've launched to determine whether they're meeting their stated goals.

Evidence-based approach

There's still a lot that outside researchers don't understand about the dynamics of military families, let alone how to design programs to support them, said Stephen Cozza, a professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a co-editor of the volume.

"Research that focuses on military children and families, while growing, remains quite limited," he said. "Much of the research examines their stressful experiences, for example, the impact of deployment, movement, maltreatment or abuse. The existing research offers only a partial picture of the experience of military children. A truly representative account would be a balanced assessment, one that measures the effects of risk, but also incorporates a focus on strengths, of which they have many, and links the lives of military children with their service member and civilian parents across their respective life courses."

Sanborn said the Marine Corps wants to take an evidence-based approach going forward, because it's unlikely to be able to afford to do everything it's doing right now, especially if it's not helping. It's looking, in particular, at the services it provides for psychological health.

"We recently just had a psychological health effectiveness exercise called an information collection assessment report of findings," Sanborn said. "This is a DoD program from the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health. And basically what it looked at was 141 different psychological health programs across the DoD. Our family advocacy program and suicide prevention programs rated in the top 25 percent of those 141 psychological health programs evaluated, but the point is, again, when times are good, budgets are full, lots of programs out there, but are they truly effective?"

Sanborn said the Marine Corps also needs to rethink the way it evaluates its existing programs. He said the military culture tends to orient itself around bureaucratic measures of the performance of government programs rather than real- world accountings of their effectiveness.

"Most of the time what we do, unfortunately, is measure performance," he said. "For example: How many people use my [Marine and Family Life Counselor] program? If the answer is 1,000, OK, what does that mean? Why wasn't it 2,000? Maybe my directive is to hire 250 MFLCs by the end of fiscal 2013. I hired 250 of them. So what? That's not a measure of effectiveness. What I demand from my team and what I think we all should demand is, tell me not measures of performance, but how do I evaluate."

Sanborn said one way might be to actually ask the people who are actually using the Marine Corps' family programs whether they're getting anything out of them.

"Maybe it's surveys," he said. "Maybe I ask the customer, 'You went there for a reason, did it meet your needs? Did it meet the requirements that you went in there for? Did it fix whatever that problem might have been that you addressed?' Maybe that's a better measure of effectiveness. But we have to get better at measuring true effectiveness, and it could be so many different avenues. The other thing about measures of effectiveness is you don't want to measure everything. Because if you measure too much, you won't measure anything. So you pick and choose wisely. One, two, three things, you focus on those, and that's where you get the most bang for your buck."

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