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The Defense Department has expanded its investigation into the criminal backgrounds of child care providers at all military facilities after officials discovered many had criminal records at a Northern Virginia base where two daycare workers have been charged with assaulting children.
Leaders at the Fort Myer, Va. daycare facilities hired at least 31 civilian workers who had criminal records on charges ranging from assault to sexual offenses, a senior Defense Department official said Wednesday.
The growing scandal at the base next to the Pentagon, which is home to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army chief of staff, prompted a telephone call Wednesday from President Obama to Army Secretary John McHugh, the Associated Press reported.
A White House official said Obama told McHugh there must be zero tolerance on standards for those charged with caring for the children of servicemembers, the AP reported.
Obama’s phone call late Tuesday night followed disclosures that two employees of the Child Development Center at Fort Myer had been arrested Sept. 26 on misdemeanor assault charges for assaulting children in their care. The senior DoD official said “these were assaults, not sexual assaults.”
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was “deeply disappointed and angered” because the Army waited until Tuesday night to inform him of the arrests made in September.
Army officials told Panetta that two suspects, Sharon Blakeney and Rebecca Smallwood-Briscoe, had allegedly pinched, kneed, and punched toddlers. Army leaders waited until the eve of Blakeney and Smallwood-Briscoe’s pre-trial status hearing on Wednesday to inform the defense secretary.
Local television station WJLA obtained the court documents from the arrests that named a third woman in the case. The station’s report stated that Army officials installed video cameras Fort Myer’s CDC following complaints from a mother upset that a worker was yelling at children.
The video cameras allegedly recorded Smallwood-Briscoe, Blakeney, and a third woman, Tonya Fagan-Clarke, assaulting children, according to WJLA’s report that cited the court documents. The report also said that Smallwood-Briscoe allegedly used her fist to “hit the face/chin area of a 2-year-old boy,” and in another instances “pulled a 2-year-old across the floor by one leg several times.”
Additionally the station reported – again, citing court documents – that Blakeney allegedly hit “another 2-year-old-boy in the head” and that Fagan-Clarke allegedly “picked up an 18-month-old girl by the arm and proceeded to drop her on her stomach.”
An Army investigation of Fort Myer’s hiring practices showed that 31 of the 130 CDC employees had criminal records. The charges included 14 for assault, six for drug use, and two for sexual assault in the fourth degree – a misdemeanor that could involve public exposure.
The official was at a loss to explain how the 31 got through the Army’s vetting process for employment.
“We don’t know if it was negligence in conducting the background checks or the background checks themselves were faulty,” the official said.
The Army later ordered a review of its hiring practices and background checks for daycare centers at all U.S. bases. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday expanded the review to include daycare facilities worldwide for all the services.
On Wednesday, Panetta expanded the review again to include the hiring practices at schools, teen centers, and any facilities serving military children at all bases and installations worldwide, Defense Department officials said.
“It’s not to be confined solely to the CDCs,” Little said. If the background and security checks turn up employees “who should not be working there, then they should be let go, period,” Little said.
Panetta demanded the new investigation after being blindsided by the Army on the scandal at the $17 million Fort Myer CDC.
“No one likes to be surprised,” Little said of the Army’s delayed notification to Panetta. “I don’t know where the breakdown in communications was. It’s something we’re looking into, and clearly this information didn’t get reported up the chain of command as quickly as we think it should have.”
‘Revamp the whole system’
Military spouses who have worked at base CDCs, or frequently used them, described stressful workplaces overlaid with rules and regulations that were often ignored. The spouses interviewed by Military.com asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from base officials for their comments.
“Every room has at least one to two terrible people that I wouldn’t let me kid sit next to because of how much they are on their phone, language they use, or attitude toward children and parents,” said a military spouse who formerly worked at a Fort Campbell, Ky. CDC.
“The only way the rooms even function is because of good grunt caregivers doing all the work,” the spouse said. “A rule there (at Fort Campbell) is if you are caught on your cell phone at all you are terminated, and pretty much everyone ... is on their phones all the time.”
“Several of the (head workers) have been caught and reported by parents, and they have never been fired,” the Fort Campbell spouse said. “It’s a lot of hypocrisy and double standards. The higher-ups choose to punish those that aren’t in their circle of friends rather than treating each equally.”
Another military spouse who regularly uses hourly daycare for her toddler at Fort Rucker, Ala., said “it is supposed to be military run, and in theory, we are supposed to be able to expect more from our military-run” facilities than civilian ones.
She said she worries that the staff is forced to work long hours to meet schedules provided for programs serving deployed families.
“Many of those employees have husbands deployed too and they need the breaks as well, but cannot get them,” the spouse said.
“I think they need to revamp the whole program allowing for happier employees, because if the employees are stressed the kids will know and the kids are the ones that pay. They need a revamp of the whole system, not just hiring practices,” the spouse said.
More than 1 million children belong to U.S. military families worldwide.
“They are part of the DOD family, and we will do whatever we can to protect them, wherever they may be,” Little said.