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Military’s day care probe raises more questions about hiring

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Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 4:30 am

WASHINGTON — A worldwide review of personnel screening at military day care centers — an inquiry sparked by alleged misconduct by caregivers at a facility near the Pentagon — has led the Army to bar seven employees at other bases from unsupervised contact with children, officials said Thursday.

The new cases came to light a day after a staff member at the Cody Child Development Center at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall was suspended for slapping a child. The Army has suspended 38 employees at the Arlington County, Va., base, known as Fort Myer, while it reviews unspecified “derogatory” information found during background checks last fall.

Army officials were unable to explain Thursday why so many employees with red flags in their records were hired to take care of children at the largest military day care center in the world.

Army spokesman George Wright, who confirmed the suspensions elsewhere, could not say whether Cody employees underwent background checks or whether red flags that should have barred applicants from child care jobs went unheeded.

“The investigation will answer those questions,” he said.

Review personnel

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta instructed all services to review personnel screening practices at day care facilities worldwide after learning in December about the alleged assault cases at Fort Myer. He has asked for a report, which is due Jan. 21.

In a statement last month, Panetta said he was “deeply disappointed and angry” about the lapses. President Barack Obama took the unusual step of calling the secretary of the Army when he was briefed about the situation in December and called for a swift and thorough probe.

Parents with children at the center — including some currently deployed in Afghanistan — have been pleading for additional details about the suspended employees, but the Army, citing privacy concerns, has disclosed little.

Several parents said they are dismayed that no one has been held accountable for the lapses so far. Some have sought alternative child care arrangements, even though Cody is heavily subsidized and private facilities in the region have waiting lists.

“It is unbelievable to me that the people running this center still have their jobs,” said a mother who removed her daughter from the center this week. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that she feared adverse career repercussions for her husband. “We are not getting a straight answer from anyone.”

The base commander, Army Col. Fern Sumpter, told parents in a letter last month that she was working “diligently and with your children’s safety in mind.”

At recent town-hall meetings, Sumpter and Army Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, the commander of Washington area bases, fielded questions from parents. There have been heated exchanges at those meetings, and in rare instances, military parents of lower rank angrily challenged the two commanders, parents said.

A Navy captain reacted angrily when Linnington cracked a joke during a meeting last week, said retired Air Force Maj. Rock Rockenbach, one of three parents in attendance who described the incident.

Linnington “seemed more concerned with covering his tail than giving real responses to the very real and legitimate concerns of the parents that addressed him,” Rockenbach said. “The fact that he cracked a joke when a parent asked him for vital information we need to protect our children is inconceivable.”

The general told parents at the meeting that investigators had found lapses in background checks at other facilities and that the problems at Cody were part of a broader pattern.

Linnington did not respond to a request for an interview. Wright, the Army spokesman, said he had no information about the meeting.

Parents said their confidence in the center’s staff was further shaken by an incident Tuesday night involving an altercation between two caregivers who were watching children while parents attended a town-hall meeting about the probe. One caregiver called military police after a spat with a colleague over removing a piece of paper from a bulletin board led to a paper cut, said Cara Marshall, president of the day care’s parent association.

Marshall said she was worried about the toll the center’s problems are taking on the staff, which she said includes several competent, caring employees.

“The caregivers are pretty stressed out,” she said. “More than one parent is concerned that if you push them to the breaking point, something worse is going to happen.”

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