Tiffany Nicole Klapheke claims her Air Force husband's deployment overseas left her too stressed to care for their three young children, one of whom died. (Taylor County Sheriff's Office via the AP)
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Twenty-two-month-old Tamryn Klapheke died in her own filth at her home on Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
Tamryn had gone two weeks without a diaper change, estimated a doctor who examined the toddler after her Aug. 28 death. Her eyes were sunken, her stomach virtually empty, her face covered in chemical burns from lying in waste.
Cause of death, according to the child's preliminary autopsy report: dehydration and malnutrition from a prolonged lack of basic care. Tamryn's two sisters, a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old, suffered similar neglect but survived.
Local police charged 22-year-old Tiffany Klapheke, the children's mother and the wife of a Dyess fuel specialist who had deployed in June, with three counts of felony injury to a child. The Air Force has accused another Dyess senior airman, Christopher Perez, of failing to report child neglect.
Testimony from a Nov. 19 Article 32 hearing to determine whether Perez should go to court-martial, as well as information released from the Child Protective Services division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, has painted a broader picture of a system that ultimately failed the three Klapheke children.
Tamryn's death also highlights a growing concern for the military. Across the four services, child fatalities linked to abuse and neglect more than doubled during the past decade, from 14 deaths in 2003 to 29 deaths in 2010, according to Pentagon data.
The Air Force reported a total of 40 child fatalities caused by abuse or neglect between the years 2001 and 2010, according to a force-wide database maintained by the Defense Department.
In the Air Force, an internal review of child fatalities from the years 2005 through 2009 identified 15 deaths, and in about one-third of those cases, the Air Force's Family Advocacy Program office had received complaints about the child's home prior to the death.
Air Force officials concluded that efforts to prevent child abuse are often hamstrung by "insufficient coordination between military health care providers, law enforcement agencies, civilian psychiatric facilities and the chain of command," according to a copy of the Air Force's internal review, which was obtained last year by Air Force Times.
Based on Article 32 testimony and the state's division of child protective services, this appears to have played at least some role in Tamryn's death.
Both the Dyess Family Advocacy Center — the organization charged with identifying cases of child abuse and providing intervention and treatment — and CPS had been involved with the Klapheke family since 2010.
CPS conducted, and closed, three neglect investigations in less than three years, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said in an email. He described Dyess involvement in each of the cases as extensive: "During the last investigation, our understanding was that the Advocacy Center was working with the family and monitoring their progress on a continuing basis," he said.
That CPS investigation was launched in September 2011 and quietly closed less than a week before Tamryn's death — without a required final home visit and approval from a supervisor. In fact, the last contact with the family had been via phone in October 2011, Crimmins wrote.
Dyess closed an investigation last December, according to testimony at Perez's Article 32 hearing, covered by the Abilene Reporter News.
Dyess advocacy center treatment manager Ed Wilcock testified the CPS case worker had not stayed in contact with the Klapheke family — or with the center, the newspaper reported. Wilcock said he'd tried to reach the case worker multiple times, to no avail.
3 reports of neglect
The Klapheke's first daughter was born June 25, 2009, according to Tiffany Klapheke's Facebook page. Nine months later, CPS received its first neglect allegation involving the family.
"The report alleged that the child's medical needs were not being met, that prescription medication for a chronic condition was not being administered," Crimmins wrote in response to Air Force Times questions. "CPS worked closely with the Dyess Family Advocacy Center and a social worker there was assigned."
Crimmins said the allegations were ruled unfounded and the case closed.
Meanwhile, the Klaphekes had a second daughter, Tamryn. CPS received a second complaint in April 2011 that the 6-month-old child was being physically neglected, Crimmins said.
The complaint, again unfounded, alleged that Tamryn "was not being fed and cared for properly," the agency spokesman wrote. "Services were provided, including Early Childhood Intervention … and CPS agreed to provide day care for two months after the closure of the investigation. The Dyess Family Advocacy Center was again involved."
CPS received a third report in September 2011. This time, allegations involved medical neglect of the older child and Tamryn. "The general assertions," wrote Crimmins, "were that the children were not developing normally and receiving proper medical care and treatment. CPS investigated, and services were again provided through the Dyess Family Advocacy Center. The last [telephone] contact with the family occurred on October 19, 2011, and the caseworker met with her supervisor and agreed that the allegations of medical neglect would be ruled out and the case closed."
The case was not actually closed until Aug. 22 — six days before Tamryn died. By then, Tiffany Klapheke had given birth to a third child. Thomas Klapheke had deployed to the Middle East.
Inside the Klapheke's base home, a 22-year-old mother of three children, all in diapers, was unraveling.
Testimony reported by the Abilene newspaper, as well as Tiffany Klapheke's own words in a TV interview from jail, provided a glimpse into the months leading up to Tamryn's death.
On her Facebook page, the mother described herself as a "loving wife to my airman Thomas and the proud mother of our three beautiful girls." She lists their names, their birthdates and each girl's weight and height at birth. She'd held two jobs since 2009, she wrote, neither of which had lasted more than five months; she'd spent just three months at her final job at a local bowling alley, leaving in June.
In the interview with KTXS-TV after her arrest, Tiffany Klapheke lamented that she had been overwhelmed with child-rearing duties. She felt trapped in her home and couldn't afford child care, she said.
"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've."
But Tiffany Klapheke was not alone in her home. She'd met Perez, the senior airman now facing multiple military charges, after placing a personal ad online, according to Nov. 19 testimony by Wilcock, an Abilene police detective and an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent.
Perez, of the 7th Security Forces Squadron, had lived in the Klapheke home for weeks prior to Tamryn's death and was involved in a sexual relationship with Tiffany Klapheke. Wilcock, the Dyess advocacy center treatment manager, testified that Thomas Klapheke was aware of his wife's relationship with Perez.
Tiffany Klapheke and Perez had exchanged hundreds of text messages; Perez referred to himself as the girls' stepfather. He occasionally saw the girls and would sometimes buy them gifts and help care for them. But Perez told authorities that Tiffany Klapheke would lock up her children for days and that he had not seen them for five days leading up to Tamryn's death.
"He didn't feel like it was his place to tell a parent how to parent," the newspaper reported Abilene police detective Eric Vickers as saying.
The Air Force charged Perez, who is married, with adultery and three specifications of failing to report neglect. He is also facing an unrelated charge of wrongful sexual contact.
On Aug. 28, someone inside the Klapheke home made a frantic call to 911 that Tamryn was unresponsive. Authorities who answered the call described the stench of human and animal feces and urine, of three thin, frail children covered in waste.
"I just wanted a break for my own sanity. That was all," Tiffany Klapheke said in the TV interview. "I didn't mean for it to go so far."
Investigating officer Lt. Col. Sandra Kent will recommend whether to send Perez to court-martial. Tiffany Klapheke, facing felony child abuse charges in civilian court, remains jailed on a $500,000 bond. Thomas Klapheke filed for divorce Oct. 8. Attempts to contact him through his Facebook page were unsuccessful.
In CPS' fourth and latest investigation, launched after Tamryn's death, the agency confirmed allegations of medical and physical neglect by Tiffany Klapheke, Crimmins said.
"On neglectful supervision, we confirmed on the mother, the father, and another caregiver in the home for all three children," Crimmins wrote. CPS was unable to determine physical neglect by Thomas Klapheke.
The agency removed Tamryn's two surviving sisters from the home and into foster care, where they remain. Family members have set up a website to raise money to help Thomas Klapheke regain custody of the two girls.
"Words cannot express the loss which the family feels. Our hearts are with Thomas as he faces life without Tamryn and the future of being a young father challenged with raising his two girls without their mother," a letter on the family website says. "Although life has dealt these precious babies a difficult hand, they are blessed with the love of a father, caring grandparents, loving aunts and uncles and countless people who have expressed their love for these girls. We are eternally grateful for your support and especially for your prayers."
Following Tamryn's death, 7th Bomb Wing and Dyess commander Col. Glen Vanherk hosted three town hall meetings "to provide an open forum for discussion between base leadership and Team Dyess Airmen and families in order to answer questions and concerns," base spokeswoman Capt. Trisha Guillebeau wrote in an email. "Commanders, First Sergeants and key spouses were in attendance to provide answers. Subject matter experts from across the base were also present, including the chaplain, representatives from family advocacy programs and mental health experts. The feedback obtained from these meetings has allowed base leadership to improve communication and teamwork at Dyess, thereby better ensuring that Airmen and their families are being taken care of."
In response to feedback at the meetings, the base public affairs office developed a "Family Support" link on the Dyess homepage. "We compiled all of the information into one easy-to-use page," Guillebeau said.
"Strong family, strong airman, strong Air Force," the page reads. It provides links and information for counseling, deployment, deployment sustainment, health and wellness, financial readiness, spouse employment, special needs, youth programs and the Air Force Aid Society, as well as others.
Guillebeau would not provide information about what, if any, wrongdoing Dyess found in its investigations into the family.
"The 7th Bomb Wing leadership is committed to fully investigating how and why this tragic incident occurred and to holding accountable under the law those who may have contributed to this situation," Guillebeau told the Reporter News.
A retired master sergeant who lives near Dyess said he wants to know what the Air Force plans to do to make sure this never happens again.
"They've got all this nice stuff, all these councils, and readiness units and all that. ... They're not doing what they're supposed to be doing. They weren't taking care of that baby," he said. "For the life of me, I could not understand how the first-line supervisor, the first sergeant and the commander did not know what was going on. They had to know what was going on."
Family abuse was a major concern for the Pentagon about 10 years ago, after Congress created a task force to study what many thought was a problem that deserved more attention. But the task force was overshadowed from the start when it delivered its final report to Congress on April 20, 2003 — the day the U.S. invaded Iraq.
The office of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness followed up on some recommendations, assigning key responsibilities to FAP offices. But the Pentagon closed its Family Violence Policy Office in 2007 and rejected a request from the task force to reconvene and evaluate the Pentagon's progress.
At CPS, multiple employees, including the Klapheke case worker, are no longer employed by the agency. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services commissioner, Howard Baldwin, also resigned. A former state district judge has replaced him.
Abilene Police Chief Stan Standridge said in a statement that the department is investigating CPS. In the days after Tamryn's death, the police department "became aware of instances in which CPS employees were told by supervisors not to cooperate with law enforcement," the statement said.
The agency turned over records police asked for only after multiple requests, the chief said. "Even then the records were not believed to be complete, thus complicating law enforcement's investigation into the child's death."
The police department is looking into whether CPS officials tampered, destroyed, concealed or fabricated evidence, Standridge wrote. Detectives executed search warrants on the agency's Abilene office and a supervisor's residence and vehicle.
"The Department had probable cause to suggest that documents and electronic media exist to support the continued investigation of tampering. Evidence was seized that will require extensive follow-up investigation," the chief said in the statement.
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.