WASHINGTON – Despite the arrests of two employees at a child-care center at Fort Myer, Va., and the suspension of 31 other workers last week who had criminal backgrounds that weren’t revealed in the hiring process, the Army did not tell Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about abuse allegations that surfaced in November at the post’s two child-care centers until Tuesday, defense officials said.
“This came as a surprise. ... Clearly this information didn’t get reported up the chain of command as quickly as we think it should have,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Wednesday.
Panetta was angered and disappointed by the news, and on Tuesday ordered a worldwide review of hiring practices at all military child-care centers, as well as defense department schools and youth facilities.
Little said he had no information to suggest the problem was more widespread. “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,” he said. “We have over a million military children out there -- not all of them are in child-care centers of course -- but they are part of the DOD family, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect them wherever they may be.”
President Barack Obama made an unusual nighttime call Tuesday to secretary of the Army John McHugh, urging him to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation of hiring practices.
Two employees at the Ft. Myer facility were arrested Sept. 26 . One was charged with four counts of assault, and the other was charged with five counts of assault, according to a defense official. Neither was charged with sexually assaulting Army children under their care, the official said.
Army child development centers are a common on-base amenity for busy families who need babysitting for children that typically range from 6 months old to pre-kindergarten age, though military day care can also be used by older schoolchildren.
Garrison commanders began random background checks on base day-care employees on Nov. 7 and discovered several criminal offenses that had not been disclosed during the hiring process.
The findings prompted new background checks on all employees at the two centers, the defense official said.
Background checks are supposed to happen before employees start work. It’s not clear whether these checks weren’t done or were done improperly, or the results weren’t checked.
Last week, the Army suspended 31 employees and closed one of the day care centers and consolidated the staff that remained into one facility.
Of the 21 people found to have more serious past offenses, 14 involved charges of assault, six involved drug use, and two involved fourth-degree sexual assault offenses, neither of which resulted in the people being placed on a sex offender registry, the official said.
The Army said Wednesday that it handled the emerging problems at the Virginia child development centers responsibly.
“This was a series of events that were deliberate and prudent and cautious, all taken with great care to ensure the well-being of the soldiers’ families,” Army spokesman George Wright said.