Over the past year, Michelle Norman, the 2019 AFI Navy Spouse of the Year, tirelessly advocated for Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) and special needs families. She accomplished this with a husband deployed, while raising two children — one of whom has special needs. And let’s not forget the glaring disruption to life caused by a worldwide pandemic.
Norman epitomizes the grit displayed by military spouses. She gets the job done. Since being named Navy MSOY, she has launched her own organization, taken a selfie with a Presidential candidate, worked to get military-friendly legislation passed in Virginia, presented testimony before a Congressional committee, surveyed hundreds of EFMP families, worked with military service organizations and drafted successful federal legislation.
Advocacy and special education during the coronavirus
The Coronavirus has closed schools and businesses, thrusting parents into unfamiliar roles of teacher and remote employee. But for some EFMP parents, educating their children takes a village, that cannot operate from a distance.
“With spouses deployed, there is no way we can wear the hats of therapist, teacher, parent and respite care provider under the stress we have right now,” Norman said. “Try not to stress. We know our kids are going to regress. Try to save your mental and physical health in order to maintain a balance in your family as best as you can.”
Although Norman’s advocacy has had to pivot, moving from the halls of Congress to video conferencing, the connection to EFMP families has grown stronger. The organization she co-founded, Partners in PROMISE (PiP) has kicked into high gear.
PiP has created COVID-specific resources for military families, webinars from special education attorneys, back to school checklists and more. The site includes EFMP Stories from military families who have struggled to ensure their children receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). But rather than dwelling on negative experiences, PiP asks its audience to become partners in working towards legislative change.
Big wins and strategic partners
The FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes key improvements to the Exceptional Family Member Program. This EFMP win is a direct result of the ongoing efforts by Military Service Organizations (MSOs) like Military Officers Association of America, National Military Family Association and Military Child Education Coalition. With many of them presenting alongside Norman during an House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel on the Exceptional Family Member Program in February.
“We were encouraged to see a lot of the special needs issues that were brought up during that hearing being directly related to this legislation,” Eryn Wagnon, Government Relations Director with MOAA, said. “Michelle, being very ambitious, had already outlined potential solutions where we could help,” Wagnon continued.
Since aligning with MOAA, Partners in PROMISE has elevated the ideas of frustrated parents into an actionable legislative agenda.
The inclusion of EFMP standardization in the FY2021 NDAA stands to catapult PiP’s success, largely because it was drafted with testimonies like Norman’s in mind.
“That’s where the good ideas come from, not from Congress or four-star flag officers or generals” said Congressman Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) “They come from the military families who have real solutions to real problems.
Next steps for EFMP
On the surface, military family legislation is a no-brainer, bipartisan choice, but there are speed bumps on the horizon. Change often requires pushing tight budgets, interstate cooperation and an examination of a diverse group of military-connected spouses and children.
According to Wagnon, “there really isn’t a lot of data on this. No one is tracking special education for military children and what issues they’re facing.”
However, Partners in PROMISE is looking to fix this with their annual military special education survey that they will release this fall.
Clearly Norman has had a big year, but knows that Partners in PROMISE has a lot more work to do.
“The NDAA is not a one and done piece of legislation. We are parents advocating for our children. There is no limitation on how hard or long we will fight for them.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer Barnhill currently serves as Director of Public Relations for Partners in Promise.Read comments