Officials: 31 suspended in Army day care scandal

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By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — At least 31 people were suspended from two Army day care centers at Fort Myer, Va., last week after officials scrutinized their backgrounds and found criminal convictions including fourth-degree sexual assault and drug use, a defense official said Wednesday.

An earlier statement that the 31 people had been fired was erroneous, the official said. Suspension allows for the possibility of reinstatement or dismissal.

The escalating scandal surrounding the Fort Myer Child Development Center has triggered a review of hiring procedures, angered defense leaders, and prompted a late-night telephone call Tuesday from President Barack Obama to the Army secretary. In the call, Obama expressed concern and urged a speedy and thorough investigation.

Details of the scandal emerged this week, 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 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who on Tuesday ordered a worldwide review of hiring practices at all military child care centers, schools, youth centers and other facilities that involve children.

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 sex assault charges ever ended up 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.

After the arrests, the youth services coordinator and deputy at the day care center were reassigned. The center was shut down last Thursday.

The defense official also said the approximately 100 remaining child care employees at Fort Myer are caring for the children at the Cody Child Development Center, also on the base.

Coming on the heels of last week's massacre of 6- and 7-year-olds in a shooting at their elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the day care scandal caught Obama's attention and prompted a 10 p.m. telephone call Tuesday to Army Secretary John McHugh.

A White House official said the president relayed his concern about reports of abuse at the day care center and made clear that there must be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to protecting the children of service members.

The official said Obama urged McHugh to conduct the investigation into its hiring practices quickly and thoroughly. Officials spoke about the investigation and the phone call on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Obama has been outspoken in his demands for a quick government reaction to the Newtown shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead.

The Army had no immediate comment on the president's call.

Pentagon leaders were angry that it took the Army months to disclose the problems to top officials and the public.

Panetta ordered the military-wide review Tuesday shortly after the Army disclosed problems with security background checks of workers at Fort Myer. Pentagon press secretary George Little said department leaders were surprised to hear of the problems and that "clearly this information did not get reported up the chain of command as quickly as we think it should have."

A defense official said McHugh was first notified of the problems last Friday because, prior to that, it was considered a local law enforcement matter. The official, however, said authorities at Fort Myer took quick action after the Sept. 26th arrests by alerting parents, and began a steadily expanding review of people and policies during October and November.

According to officials, one person was charged with four counts of assault on children and the other was charged with five counts of assault. The alleged actions included hitting, grabbing or pushing the children. In the days after the arrests, the two administrators were dismissed, others were brought in and town hall meetings took place with parents.

Asked about the timing, Army spokesman George Wright said the local installation commander at Fort Myer took immediate action after the arrests to address the problems, and over time officials did some random background checks of employees. When those checks revealed some criminal convictions, every worker's background was then reviewed.

Wright said it's not as though the arrests happened and nothing was done. "There were deliberate, prudent and cautious actions taken" as more and more information was learned over the past three months, he said.

Officials, however, said it remained unclear if the initial background checks were not done, were insufficient or simply were ignored during the screening of personnel as they were hired.

"We need to do everything we can wherever our children are entrusted to the care of DOD-employed personnel to insure we have the right personnel with the right background taking care of them," Little said. "We want to insure that there's consistency in the standards and policies and practices in hiring wherever military youth are involved."

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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