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Research Questions

  1. What are the state-level legal responsibilities and requirements of parents that might have implications for cadets and midshipmen and for DoD policies and costs?
  2. What DoD regulations, policies, and practices need to be reconsidered or changed to comply with the congressional direction?
  3. What DoD regulations, policies, and practices offer examples that could be applied to the MSAs?
  4. Are any other congressional legislative changes needed to ensure the parental rights of cadets and midshipmen?
  5. What are the potential costs to DoD associated with allowing cadets and midshipmen to maintain their parental rights?

U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) policy prohibits cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. military service academies (MSAs) from having dependents while enrolled. Cadets or midshipmen who have become parents while enrolled have been required to sever their legal obligation to support the child, resign from the academy, or face disenrollment. The fiscal year (FY) 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires that the Secretary of Defense change this policy so that cadets and midshipmen who become parents while attending an MSA can preserve their parental rights, "consistent with the individual and academic responsibilities of such cadet or midshipman."

In this report, the authors examine the legal, policy, practice, and cost implications of changing MSA rules to comply with the FY 2022 NDAA. The authors found that changing DoD policy to allow cadets and midshipmen to preserve their parental rights has implications for policies on a host of issues, including the provision of benefits and supporting programs and services — such as housing, child care, and health care — to assist student-parents. The authors also found that, regardless of which policy options DoD chooses, existing laws can temporarily protect cadets and midshipmen from legal action related to their children, and state laws will strongly uphold parental rights. The authors recommend changes to military policies and practices that could help these student-parents better care for their children, succeed in school, and become exemplary officers.

Key Findings

The change in parental rights has wide-ranging policy implications

  • DoD's policy options include minimally complying with the FY 2022 NDAA; creating guidance to ensure consistent implementation; providing benefits, programs, and services similar to those provided to other active-duty personnel; and lifting related prohibitions, such as those on marriage.
  • It is unlikely that state courts would require involuntary termination of rights of student-parents on the grounds of too little financial support or not enough time spent with their children.
  • The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act may temporarily shield cadets and midshipmen who are sued by their co-parents for custody or financial support. However, these cadets and midshipmen could still incur significant legal expenses.

Policy options have different cost implications

  • No data source contains information on cadets and midshipmen who have become parents or on their academic outcomes.
  • The potential costs of the various policy options for a parent depend on such factors as whether the cadet or midshipman is the one who becomes pregnant and when in their academic career they become parents, as well as the potential supports provided, such as an additional stipend or child health care.
  • Costs could be characterized as sizable for an individual but small in the aggregate. Aggregate cost estimates ranged from $33,000 to $1.8 million across the various scenarios modeled.
  • The models were based on scenarios in which cadets and midshipmen continue to live in dorms on campus and do not have physical custody of their children. Evaluating changes to those options would require further study.

Recommendations

  • DoD should adopt policy options for cadets and midshipmen that are consistent with its policies for other active-duty personnel, leveraging the strengths of its Military Family Readiness System. Additional pay, benefits, and other supports could help ensure cadet and midshipman health, well-being, and ability to focus on professional and academic responsibilities; address inequities across students; and attract and retain quality officers.
  • DoD, the military departments, and the MSAs should create detailed policies on MSA practices related to pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care.
  • In the short term, DoD should help ensure the health and well-being of cadets and midshipmen who are becoming parents and their children by providing leave with health care for a cadet's or midshipman's period of pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum care, as well as health care coverage for the child.
  • DoD and the MSAs should develop and implement plans to ensure that applicants, as well as cadets and midshipmen, understand new policies regarding their parental rights and responsibilities.
  • DoD should conduct or support further qualitative research to evaluate possible changes to housing, child development centers, and cadet and midshipman privileges.
  • While new and revised policies are being established, DoD and the MSAs should begin to collect, monitor, and analyze data on the parenthood status of cadets and midshipmen. This information could be used to inform policies and practices and to assess potential impact on the student-parents or their families; cadet and midshipman culture, morale, and quality of life more generally; and the MSAs' ability to execute their missions.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Manpower and Reserve Affairs and conducted within the Personnel, Readiness, and Health Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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