Military Daycare Centers Hire First, Screen Later

Children play outside the Child Development Center at Fort Myer, Va. Adam Skoczylas/U.S. Army

The Army bureaucracy has allowed newly-hired employees to start caring for infants and children at base daycare centers before completing the entire vetting process to include criminal background checks, said Pentagon officials and former military daycare workers.

In the case of the growing scandal at the Fort Myer, Va., Child Development Center (CDC), where more than 20 percent of 130 daycare workers on the base had criminal records, Pentagon officials said it was still unclear whether criminal background checks were ever done at all.

The focus now is on the vetting procedures at other CDCs in the system “out of an abundance of caution,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I worked there for five months until my background check came through,” said a military spouse who formerly worked at the Army’s Fort Campbell, Ky., CDC. The spouse described a system of colored badges that she wore to denote the level of supervision she required before the background checks were cleared.

If the practice is typical, then “there are a bunch of people working with kids before they even know if they are safe to be around,” the spouse said.

The thoroughness of the background checks has become a matter of intense concern for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama since the arrest of two daycare workers at Fort Myer in September on misdemeanor assault charges for mistreating toddlers.

The arrests and subsequent investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia led to the discovery through random background checks and an audit that at least 31 other Fort Myer CDC employees had criminal records, including two for misdemeanor sex offenses.

A “deeply disappointed and angered” Panetta, who was not told of the arrests or faulty background checks until Dec. 18, ordered a worldwide investigation of the hiring and training practices at the more than 900 CDCs and youth facilities in all the services. The facilities accommodate about 500,000 children on a daily basis. Panetta told the service secretaries to report back to him in writing by Jan. 21.

The fallout from the scandal also put Army Secretary John McHugh on the spot. President Obama made a late-night phone call to McHugh when the scandal broke to ask what went wrong and what he was doing to fix the system.

The daycare scandal hit home for the President. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have advocated for the troops through their “Joining Forces” initiative and the President has made support of military families a signature issue of his administration.

Panetta’s investigation order focused attention on the actions of the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM), led by Lt. Gen. Mike Ferriter and headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. IMCOM, which provides infrastructure and services for Army bases worldwide, had responsibility for oversight of the training and hiring of CDC employees.

Ferriter was informed of the arrests and the background check problems at Fort Myer in mid-November, the senior Defense official said, and immediately “directed an inspection of the oversight and management at all CDC facilities.”

Over the course of two weeks, several IMCOM officials and spokesmen did not respond to repeated phone and written requests for comment questions such as how many employees work at the CDCs and the role the outside agency, Child Care Aware of America (CCAA), plays in daycare worker hiring and training.

Under contract with the Defense Department, CCAA -- formerly known as the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies -- helps in providing daycare fee assistance to military families and “also assists with recruiting child care providers who meet the service-designated requirements” to work at CDCs, said Cynthia O. Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

Smith said that “each of the military services is responsible for hiring employees who work with children in the child development programs” under Defense Department guidelines designed to “ensure that criminal history background checks are performed in accordance with the Crime Control Act of 1990.”

A spokeswoman for CCAA, which calls itself “America’s most trusted child care resource” on its website, declined comment on its work for the military.

George Little, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said last week there had been no immediate indications that the hiring of daycare workers with criminal records was widespread in the vast military daycare system.

However, a former CDC director who spoke to on the condition of anonymity described a stressed system operating with a high burnout and turnover rate among employees.

“As a former director, I can testify the stress level is always very, very high -- some children with very difficult behaviors, poorly-trained caregivers, toxic parents, a host of nonsensical regulations, and no ‘go-to’ for help and answers.

“Most of the caregivers in my charge were very compassionate and hardworking, but the burnout and turnover levels were extremely high, like over 200 percent per year,” the former director said. The result was that “nearly all the caregivers have little experience and less training -- certainly not the level of care these children deserve.”

In the case of Fort Myer, parents were notified within a week of the Sept. 26 arrests on misdemeanor assault charges of the two daycare workers but random background checks on other personnel at the CDC were not conducted until early November.

Shortly after Panetta and President Obama were informed last month of the Fort Myer situation, the senior Defense Department official said “we don’t know if it was negligence in conducting the background checks or the background checks themselves were faulty.” On Tuesday, the official said the Army still doesn’t know.

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