4 big wins for military families with special needs kids
(Photo: Defense Imagery Management Operations Center)

By Julie Provost

When you are a special needs family trying to navigate military life, you can use all the help you can get. Unfortunately, there are plenty of challenges and frustrations for these families– from navigating TRICARE to how things work in a DoDEA school. However, over the years there have been big wins for military families with special needs kids. Even though we have a long way to go, it’s important tot know the progress we’ve made.

1. Disabled Military Children Protection Act

In December of 2014, President Obama signed the Disabled Military Child Protection Act which allows a military parent to provide a survivor benefit for a disabled child and have that benefit paid to a special needs trust for their benefit. Before this went into law, military parents were faced with a bit of a dilemma: The benefit could not be assigned to a trust and could have intervened with the child’s eligibility for government benefit programs such as SSI or Medicaid. This left parents worried about how their special needs child would be cared for if something happened to them.

2. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004

In 2004, IDEA ensured that all qualifying children ages 3-21 with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. That means special needs children are protected in the school system by having an evaluation, an IEP, the least restrictive environment for the child at school, and opportunities for meaningful participation.

When a family moves to a new school, as military families do, the school is supposed to recognize the IEP and provide a comparable level of services. However, school districts are allowed to reevaluate a child and draft a new IEP with its own placement and services. This is why military families with special needs children don’t always get the same level of services when they move.

Before June of 2015, DoDEA schools went by the IDEA Act of 1997. This was changed and the DoD issued a new directive and a manual with regulations based on the provisions from the IDEA of 2004.

3. 2010 National Defence Authorization Act

The 2010 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) created the DoD’s Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs. This office makes sure that military families with special needs receive direct services, assignment coordination, and family support. They are the ones to help develop and implement policies for military families with special needs kids, find gaps in services, monitor programs and more. Having an office to help with special needs in the military is an important part of receiving the services that these families need for their children.


In September of 2005, TRICARE developed ECHO ( the Extended Care Health Option) to replace what they were currently using, PFPWD (Program For Persons With Disabilities).ECHO provides financial assistance to beneficiaries with special needs for an integrated set of services and supplies. In order to qualify, recipients need to be enrolled in EFMP and register for ECHO with case managers in each TRICARE region. ECHO provides assistive services, equipment, expanded in-home medical services, rehabilitative services, respite care, institutional care, and transportation to and from institutions or facilities. There is a cost-share associated with ECHO that is based on rank and is between $25-250 a month. The catastrophic cap is $36,000 per fiscal year.

With the change from PFPWD came the addition of 16 hours a month of respite care for families that qualify. This is to give these military families a break to be able to catch up on life or just to spend some quality time together. There was also an increase in the amount that ECHO paid for benefits over what PFPWD did. There were changes in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) as well. As much as ECHO was a win for military families, it still has a long way to go before it can truly provide everything that these families need to help raise their child within the military system.

Julie Provost is an associate editor at Military One Click and a National Guard spouse. She can be reached at