The allegations of physical abuse of toddlers at the day-care center in Arlington and the personnel review appear to have taken Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the White House by surprise. Administration officials were notified on Tuesday.
President Obama took the unusual step of telephoning Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh late Tuesday to express concern about lapses and urge a prompt and thorough investigation, a senior administration official said.
In describing Obama’s call to McHugh, the administration official said, “The president made clear that we must have a zero-
tolerance policy when it comes to protecting the children of service members from abuse.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
McHugh has ordered an Army-wide review of day-care management. “These initial findings are not only troubling, they are unacceptable,” the Army secretary said in a statement. “We will make certain that adequate policies and procedures are in place.”
Two workers at the day-care center at the base known as Fort Myer were recorded by surveillance cameras dragging, pinching, kneeing and taunting toddlers, according to federal court records. The center is the military’s largest day-care center, with more than 400 children ranging from 6 weeks to 12 years old. It is used by Pentagon employees and other service members in the Washington area.
A personnel review at Fort Myer began in the fall after a parent complained about an allegedly abusive caregiver.
The inquiry turned up evidence that at least 31 staffers had potentially disqualifying factors in their records, including history of drug use and past allegations of assault, a U.S. official familiar with the investigation said. The staffers have been suspended.
“This is not just one or two or three people,” the official said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of an ongoing inquiry. “This is a severe lapse in the background checks system.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Wednesday that Panetta was “deeply disappointed and angry” about the hiring lapses at the base.
“He issued a directive immediately to all services to review their hiring practices and will settle for nothing less than the absolute best standards for our military children,” Little said.
Senior officials were scrambling Wednesday to learn details of the hiring lapses at Fort Myer and expressed disappointment that the Army didn’t alert them sooner about the severity of the abuse allegations.