Panetta orders all DOD childcare centers investigated after alleged assault; 30 workers suspended

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered an immediate investigation into all Defense Department childcare centers after the Army found problems with the security background checks of 30 employees of childcare facilities at a major base in Virginia.

The extraordinary move comes more than two months after two childcare employees at Fort Myer were arrested by military police for allegedly assaulting two children on September 26, a defense official told the E-Ring. “I’m told that two of the children were slapped,” the official said, adding there was no sexual assault. Concerns about the workers were first raised when caregivers were accused of “inappropriate disciplinary measures,” the official said, which later were documented by other employees and cameras installed at the childcare facility, on the children.

But court documents revealed in October by a local television station showed the caregivers are accused of far worse than slapping. Local television station WJLA first reported in October that federal court documents allege that Rebecca Smallwood-Briscoe, 57, "pulled a 2-year-old boy across the floor by one leg several times" and that she "hit the face/chin area of a 2-year-old boy with her fist." Sharon Blakeney allegedly hit "another 2-year-old boy in the head" while Tonya Fagan-Clarke allegedly knocked a boy to the floor by grabbing his arm violently and "picked up an 18-month-old girl by the arm and proceeded to drop her on her stomach."

Following the arrests, the Army began investigating the background checks of childcare employees at Fort Myer and found unspecified “derogatory information” in the files of the alleged assaulters. Investigators determined that “there may have been some irregularities in the hiring procedures,” the official said.

The wider worry prompted further background digging, and Army officials then determined that up to 30 employees at its facilities, known as Army Child Development Centers (CDCs), on Fort Meyer also may have been hired through improper procedures. All 30 have been suspended.

Fort Myer is a sprawling picturesque base across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, that houses the highest-ranking officers in the Army, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.

Following the initial investigation, Army Secretary John McHugh ordered an Army-wide review of procedures and management at all childcare centers. Panetta then ordered all of the military service branches to conduct similarly sweeping reviews of hiring practices globally, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement released late Tuesday.

“Military children are precious members of our DoD family,” Panetta said, in a statement provided to reporters.  “As a department, protecting our service members and their families is paramount.That includes doing everything we can to provide for the safety of children attending CDCs throughout the department, and ensuring they are provided with the highest quality care by dedicated professionals. We owe nothing less to the members of our DoD family who have sacrificed so much for this department and this nation."

The children of the facility in question have been moved to another on-base facility at Fort Meyer. “Out of an abundance of caution, we removed those employees and temporarily closed the facility,” said Col. Fern Sumpter, Fort Myer’s garrison commander. The day after the initial arrests, Sumpter informed his headquarters and the Army Installation Management Command, which runs all installations in the U.S. and is running the service-wide investigation. Sumpter said a subsequent investigation “has just begun” into whether proper background checks were performed on employees when they were hired.

But the fact that months passed before the Army publicy disclosed its wider concerns is not sitting with with other officials. "I guess there could be a reason why it took so long for the Army to make this news known," said a second defense official, of the Army. "But a lot of people are wondering why it took them so long to run this up the chain -- and wondering if families should have been notified sooner.  We'll see."

The Army did not reveal the names or positions of the 30 individuals suspended, but says not all were “directly responsible for child care.” However, in its release, the Army said the facility’s “child youth coordinator” and a deputy were reassigned. The defense official who spoke to the E-Ring did not know whether investigators have found any additional childcare employees with irregular background checks or that were hired through improper procedures.

In a statement, Army Secretary McHugh said, “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.

“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.”