Cover: The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP)

The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP)

Policy Alignment Between the Department of Defense and the Services

Published May 3, 2021

by Sarah O. Meadows, Diana Y. Myers, Laura L. Miller, Thomas E. Trail

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Research Questions

  1. Did the department or service branch policy address, in any way, the requirement stated in the DoDI 1315.19?
  2. Did the service branch document address each portion of the DoDI requirement at the same (or greater) level of specificity?

The Department of Defense (DoD) Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is designed to provide resources and support to military families who have a dependent member — whether a child or an adult — with special needs. These special needs range from learning disabilities to mental, emotional, or physical health conditions that require nonstandard care.

The Office of Special Needs (OSN) has been designated as the leading oversight body for EFMP; however, each military department is tasked with implementing the program. Both DoD and the departments, and individual service branches themselves, have official policy documents that guide the EFMP, with the departments and services modeling their policy after the official DoD Instruction (DoDI). The policy documents cover several domains, including identification and mandatory enrollment of family members in the EFMP, assignment coordination for service members, family support services, and other requirements related to implementation and monitoring of the program. Discrepancies across these policy documents may lead to differences in how the program is actually implemented and thus experienced by service members and their families.

The authors compare department and service branch EFMP policy with the overarching DoD policy that outlines the EFMP and its requirements to identify where and how these differing experiences may occur. Their analysis identifies areas where DoD, department, or service policy could be edited or refined for greater consistency across policies. Other opportunities to promote consistent implementation of the EFMP across DoD are also discussed.

Key Findings

There were differences across military departments/services in how family members were identified and enrolled into the EFMP

  • Only one policy addressed the DoDI 1315.19 requirement that screening and evaluation procedures for identification and enrollment of family members with special needs should follow TRICARE access to care standards.
  • Details about military treatment facility staff training on EFMP policies and procedures were lacking.

There were differences in how assignments were coordinated for service members

  • Some service policies'description of the assignment coordination procedures did not reference the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR) as specified by the DoDI.
  • Required coordination with other military departments and offices and civilian organizations was not always detailed.
  • No service policy addressed the DoD's requirement that military departments must establish procedures to reimburse the DoD Education Activity (DoDEA) if assignment coordination does not occur prior to a family's move.
  • Details regarding how each service would ensure a service member's career would not be harmed by EFMP enrollment were largely absent in policy documents.

There were differences in the provision of family support services and other program aspects

  • Details about the timing, frequency, and content of training of installation-level EFMP Family Support Services staff were lacking.
  • EFMP inputs to support annual reporting requirements in military department or service policy did not match the DoDI's list of necessary elements.
  • DoDI requirements ensuring service member and family website had access to EFMP information and providing local, generic EFMP email addresses to reach program staff were not consistently addressed.


  • Military departments and services should update policy documents to fully address all requirements provided in DoDI 1315.19. The results presented here may help identify areas where department and service branch policy could benefit from added detail and more-specific language to prevent unintended variation in services provided to EFMP families.
  • The OSN should ensure consistency of EFMP policies and services provided across services. In addition to using clear language in the DoDI, DoD should take steps to ensure that the EFMP policy documents for each service uniformly address DoDI policy.
  • OSN should offer specific guidance, via policy, to the military departments and services regarding training for EFMP staff. Some training will be specific to service policies and procedures, but training on the DoDI and other family support service topics could be centralized for standardization, quality assurance, efficiency, and the sharing of lessons learned.
  • Military departments and services should provide all military families with information about the EFMP, and OSN should ensure that the information provided is current and comparable across service branches. Though the authors were able to ascertain that all branches have headquarters-level websites for the EFMP, the requirements for these websites, including content, maintenance, and publicizing, are not explicitly spelled out in DoD, department, or service branch policies.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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