Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a review of hiring practices at all military child care centers, after potential problems with security background investigations were identified at the Fort Myer, Va., child development center.
Panetta's announcement followed news the Army is investigating hiring practices at all of its child development centers worldwide. The investigation was prompted by the arrest of two Army employees accused of assaulting children at the Fort Myer CDC.
At least 31 people were suspended from two Army day care centers at Fort Myer after officials scrutinized their backgrounds and found criminal convictions, including for fourth-degree sexual assault and drug use, a defense official told The Associated Press.
The escalating scandal angered defense leaders and prompted a late-night phone call Dec. 16 from President Obama to Army Secretary John McHugh, during which Obama expressed concern and urged a speedy and thorough investigation.
Details of the scandal emerged in mid-December, nearly three months after two workers were arrested on charges of assaulting children at the Fort Myer center. The slow pace of public revelations enraged Panetta.
"The secretary believes that the care of our children is paramount, and he will settle for nothing less than the highest standards of care for military children," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
Panetta was "deeply concerned and angered," Little said, "and is insistent that we do everything we can to ensure we don't have breakdowns in care at other DoD facilities."
According to a defense official, 10 of the 31 suspended workers were involved in minor criminal offenses; 13 were involved in assaults; six were involved in drug use; and two were involved in fourth-degree sexual assault.
The official noted that neither person with sexual assault charges appeared on a national registry of sex offenders. In some cases, sexual assaults can involve people over the age of 18 who are having consensual relationships with someone under the age of 18.
Little said he has no information to suggest the problem is more widespread, but Panetta believes it is prudent to look at the other services to determine if there are other breakdowns.
"If there are employees at DoD [child development centers] that shouldn't be working there, they should be let go," Little said.
Army officials announced Dec. 18 they will investigate personnel procedures at all of the service's CDCs, and compliance with those policies and procedures.
"It's a fundamental responsibility to ensure the highest quality of care for the children of our men and women in uniform, many of whom rely on us to care for their children while deployed," McHugh said. "These initial findings are not only troubling, they are unacceptable, and we will make certain that adequate policies and procedures are in place, and that they are strictly followed and fully enforced."
What surveillance found
In September, parents complained to the Child Youth & School Services Directorate on Fort Myer that a caregiver had been yelling at children in a classroom of toddlers.
In turn, a special agent with Army Criminal Investigation Command viewed 30 days of surveillance footage in which he saw three caretakers who roughly treated children as young as 18 months old.
In a sworn statement, Special Agent Charles Bibby said that worker, Rebecca Smallwood-Brisco, struck a 2-year-old boy in the head with a toy, and two days later, punched another in the face.
"As a result of the hit, the child's head jerked back several inches," the statement reads. "The child then held his mouth and began crying."
Another worker, Sharon Blakeney, hit a 2-year-old boy's hands, picked him up by the arm to place him in a corner and kneed him in the back. She later pinched his stomach and held his arm while she "held a white, sticky rodent trap full of bugs right next to his face," according to the affidavit filed in her case.
Smallwood-Brisco, 57, of Oxon Hill, Md., and Blakeney, 47, of Seat Pleasant, Md., were charged with five counts of simple assault of a minor; they appeared in federal court Dec. 19.
Charges had been dropped for a third worker, Tonya Fagan-Clarke, 30, of Woodbridge, Va.
The Army's Installation Management Command in October replaced the Fort Myer day care center's management and "found background issues with a number of employees," the Army said.
The employees were removed, and the Army temporarily closed the facility "out of an abundance of caution," relocating the children to the post's Cody CDC, Col. Fern Sumpter, garrison commander at Fort Myer, said in a statement.
The Army is investigating whether required procedures, including background checks, were performed properly when the employees were hired.
Fort Myer officials also created a panel to review the background files of about two dozen employees to determine whether they should be terminated. The center's child youth coordinator and deputy were reassigned while those investigations and reviews are underway.
Military child care centers are required to conduct background checks on their employees. Child development programs receive four unannounced inspections each year. Two inspections include a review of personnel records to verify that background checks have been conducted and are current, said DoD spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. The military services' higher headquarters are required to conduct an annual unannounced inspection of their child development programs, she said.
DoD has the authority to make unannounced visits to selected programs to ensure they are following regulations. In the last fiscal year, DoD started accompanying the services on their inspections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.