"Invisible" Air Force Toddler Dies of Neglect

Military family support, no matter the service, is an elaborate web of resources designed to make sure people don’t fall through the system. When the system works, hurting families get the help they need. When it doesn’t, tragedy can strike.

And so we have the story of Tiffany Klapheke, a 21-year-old Air Force spouse and mother of three whose 22-month-old daughter last week died of neglect. Tiffany told a local TV station that she was depressed and stressed because of her husband’s deployment, and that she had no help taking care of her kids. Three weeks ago a friend stopped her from committing suicide, she said. But when her daughter started removing her diaper while running around the house she became frustrated, she put the little girl in her crib and ignored her cries.

An autopsy report shows the little girl died of dehydration, malnutrition and a lack of basic care over a period of time.

This shocking, heartbreaking situation could’ve happened in any community, to a wife whose husband holds any job.

But it didn’t. It happened in a military home.  Which is enough to make me wonder what else we – her fellow military spouses and servicemembers – could have done to prevent the death of a toddler.

Military families have an amazing array of helping professionals poised to prevent this nightmare. Since high risk behaviors like the ones in the Klapheke family don’t generally develop overnight, something could have been done.  Her husband could have told his command team before deployment to keep an eye on her.  If the servicemember or a neighbor worried about Tiffany during deployment, the command could have conducted periodic home visits, a practice that is common in on-base housing. Her unit’s family support group also would have called her if they knew about a problem.

According to this report the home conditions were so devastating that the first responders are “feeling a heavy impact.” That sort of environment doesn’t develop over a few days.  At the very, very least – someone must have heard that child crying from her bed. Have you met a 22-month-old? They aren’t exactly quiet, even under good conditions. We know how thin walls can be. Surely someone would  have heard or seen or even smelled that invisible baby and called the police?  Child Protective Services?  Military OneSource?

But none of that happened. Even though Tiffany complained in this report that "nobody took a second to ask me if there was anything they could do to help or if I needed anything and I wish they would have," it’s certainly possible that she had asked not to be contacted by her unit’s family support group and now regrets (or doesn’t remember) that request. Tiffany probably wasn’t the type to show up at family group meetings, either.  Anyone that afflicted probably did not sign up for or read the unit emails (if they had them), so she probably didn’t know about the vast bevy of resources available to help her with her children or give her mental support.

Whether by choice or by happenstance, Tiffany Klapheke became invisible. So did her children.

Military families value their privacy. In a past age being a military spouse meant living on base and knowing all the business of every person in a 10 mile radius. But these days we have the privilege, if we so choose, of being invisible by living off base or ignoring unit functions.

Yet I wonder if we – the military community – still have a responsibility to hunt these people down and hold them up?

I don’t know how we could make that work.  I don’t know how to find the invisible spouses of my unit if they don’t want to be found.  I keep returning again and again to the question:  Do we military families still owe something to each other?  Or are our military resources good enough already?  What else could possibly be done to prevent the very few invisible babies of our world from slipping through the cracks created by their own parents?


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