Military's Handling of Abuse at Day Cares Under Increasing Pressure from Congress, Inspector General

Children play at a child development center at a U.S. military facility
Kids from miliary families play at a base child development center. (DVIDs photo by Pvt. Joshua Shaw)

House lawmakers want to force the military to improve oversight at its child day cares, including a 24-hour rule on notification of parents in cases of abuse, following reporting by

The move by the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday comes after the Pentagon inspector general this week announced reviews of military day care oversight, while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently reassured Congress that inspections and policies are in place to protect children. The Army also on May 17 directed its day care centers to report incidents of sexual behavior between children to parents, adopting a policy already in place in many states for the private sector.

A investigation in April uncovered several cases of abuse and sexual behavior between children at military child development centers in three states. The cases highlighted a system of oversight that is frustratingly slow to notify parents when abuse occurs, emphasizes protecting the institution, and has a confusing chain of responsibility that slows progress in investigating and prosecuting cases of abuse.

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Workers at on-base child care centers serving military families would be required to notify parents and guardians of any incidents involving their children within 24 hours under legislation approved Wednesday night in the House committee's version of the annual, must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.

The requirement was sponsored by Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii. That state was the location of an instance of abuse at the Ford Island Child Development Center near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that was included in the reporting.

    In that case, a 15-month-old had a photo of her parents shoved in her face by a CDC worker while being restrained by another, and surveillance video showed she had been pinched, shoved, smothered and pushed up against a wall by at least two workers at the center, according to her family.

    That military day care failed to document the abuse or notify the family of the full extent, and no police or command reports were filed on the day of her abuse. Two of the day care workers who were allegedly involved were allowed to keep working for five months. Eventually, after more than a year, three workers were charged with abuse in Hawaii civilian court.

    "It is unacceptable that our military families have struggled to get information when their child experiences abuse or harm at a military child care center," Tokuda said in a statement to "Military families deserve immediate action that gives them peace of mind in knowing their children are safe."

    Senators demand answers

    The House legislation must be approved by the full chamber and eventually negotiated with the Senate before becoming law. But it also comes as the Department of Defense inspector general announced its own independent reviews of the day cares on Wednesday -- one looking at the effectiveness of child development centers' policies on identifying and reporting abuse, and one on how the DoD and the services communicate on abuse -- and as the Senate has increased pressure on the Pentagon following the reporting.

    The services generally have disjointed and confusing regulations on how day cares should be run, particularly with documenting incidents of abuse involving children and notifying parents. In many cases, it's unclear when parents should be notified when their child is abused or harmed. also found repeated situations of day care workers not documenting incidents.

    Further confusing oversight, the Defense Department and services sometimes have contradictory rules, which is even more complicated by authority being delegated down to garrison commanders. That has left three sets of complex rules for child development centers and their staffs to follow.

    In the civilian world, norms and state laws have typically kept the rules simpler -- directing civilian day cares to document all incidents and notify parents immediately.

    Sens. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, and Alex Padilla, a Democrat representing California -- the site of another abuse case -- sent a letter to Austin in April pressing the defense secretary on the shortfalls in abuse policies and notifications identified by Another letter was sent Wednesday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raising the same concerns and asking for information on how the DoD will address the problems from Austin, as well as the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy.

    "Not only is this child abuse absolutely unacceptable, but the CDC's failure to identify such misconduct, notify the parents, and swiftly remove the abusers from caring [for] children is deeply troubling," Warren wrote, citing the reporting.

    Austin, in an earlier response to the Hirono and Padilla letter, said the department is "steadfast" in its commitment to a safe environment for children at the military day cares. Also, he said the DoD is doing its own review of abuse policies -- separate from the IG review -- to "identify gaps in prevention, identification and reporting."

    "Any harm to children and lack of timely communications with families is unacceptable and these reports are being taken seriously," he wrote.

    When asked whether he is confident that day cares adequately respond to abuse claims, Austin said each facility undergoes four annual, unannounced inspections, including a higher headquarters certification inspection.

    New Army policy on notifying parents

    Meanwhile, the Army last week directed its day care centers to report to parents incidents that involve sexual behavior between children. Many states have laws in place for civilian day cares, but the service has lagged behind. Previously, there was no clear guidance on notifying parents or guardians. reported on an incident in December at the day care that serves the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania in which a child was inappropriately touched by another child, according to the family and internal Army documents on the investigation. It was unclear whether an adult was also involved.

    The 4-year-old had several injuries to their genitals, according to medical documents. The mother also described behavioral issues and bleeding. The child was touched by another child numerous times on Dec. 5 and 6, according to the Army Criminal Investigation Division.

    The director of the Army day care was notified immediately, but the parents weren't told until Dec. 7. The day care also did not document the touching and injuries in incident reports, though doing so is mandated by Army policy.

    Such incidents are called problematic sexual behavior between children and youth, and are defined as adolescents engaging in sexual acts, typically before puberty and without context or sexual urges.

    The 4-year-old's mother told that the child exhibited some behavioral changes months earlier that she believes were related, but investigators did not review security footage before the incident in December.

    "The Army is dedicated to providing a safe, nurturing environment for the children of our soldiers and their families," Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, who oversees much of the Army's personnel policy implementation, said in an internal memo to the force May 17. "We understand the importance of this responsibility and are committed to upholding the highest standards of care in our facilities."

    The Army had a previous policy on problematic sexual behavior between children that was marked as Controlled Unclassified Information, or CUI, a designation for materials that often keeps them from the public. The service has since removed that designation and shared the policy with, after Congress pressed service leaders on the matter.

    That earlier policy directed garrison officials to collect data and formally track problematic sexual behavior but did not establish clear guidelines on notifying parents.

    However, the new Army regulation on problematic sexual behavior delegates much of the authority to the service's Family Advocacy Program, or FAP, the civilian clinicians and other officials who provide various resources to families, particularly in instances of abuse.

    A February report from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found that most FAP clinicians do not have the expertise needed to appropriately handle incidents of problematic sexual behavior. FAP officials rarely complete a five-day course on treating the behavior, though the low completion rate is partly due to funding issues.

    -- Rebecca Kheel and Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report. 

    Related: Unsupervised: Military Child Care Centers Slow to Report Abuse with Little Oversight

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