An Army base near the Pentagon sparked a review that found more than 30 staffers who officials say should have been barred from contact with children. (STAFF/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The Defense Department has launched a worldwide investigation into hiring practices at military child-care centers after a criminal probe of employees at an Army base near the Pentagon sparked a review that found more than 30 staffers who officials say should have been barred from contact with children.

Two civilian employees at the Child Development Center at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall appeared in federal court Wednesday in Alexandria to face charges of assaulting 2-year-olds in their care.

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.

“It’s a bit of a mystery why this didn’t bubble up the chain of command sooner,” a defense official said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the tension the case has generated.

Army spokesman George Wright said officials initially viewed the probe as a “local law enforcement matter” that didn’t warrant notification of senior officials. He credited Army leaders for taking “decisive action” after the first hints of problems.

Wright said the Army launched a preliminary personnel review the week of Nov. 7, after the criminal charges were filed, and later decided to examine the personnel records of everyone on staff. He declined to elaborate on the evidence that led to the 31 suspensions.

“Every matter will be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

The employees were suspended Dec. 13. The center where the staffers under investigation worked has been closed, and the children assigned there are now being looked after at another facility on the post, Wright said.

Parents of children who attended the center were told about the criminal investigation at town hall meetings in October, Wright said.

Fort Myer spokeswoman Mary Ann Hodges said she could not provide further details because of “privacy concerns” and a desire to “maintain the integrity of the procedural processes afforded to employees affected by review of hiring actions.”

A Pentagon official whose 2-year-old son attends the center said she was disturbed by the allegations.
“This is shocking to hear as a parent,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn’t feel comfortable being identified due to her official role. “I was surprised to hear that there was any question at all about background investigations being conducted properly.”
The parent, however, said she has been reassured by the Army’s response to the allegations, believes the center is professionally run and thinks most caregivers are trustworthy.

The probe began Sept. 27 after a parent called the child-care center to complain about a staff member who screamed at 2-year-olds, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria by Charles Bibby, a special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. When supervisors watched footage recorded by a surveillance camera inside a classroom, they found “a number of acts of misconduct,” Bibby wrote.

Bibby took the footage to federal prosecutor Amanda M. O’Neil, who asked investigators to review the past 30 days of footage from that classroom and an adjacent one. The footage showed multiple instances of alleged assault, Bibby said, prompting authorities to file criminal charges against three of the workers.

Rebecca Smallwood-Brisco, 57, of Fort Myer, and Sharon Blakeney, 47, of the District, were charged Oct. 25 with misdemeanor assault on a child younger than 16. Neither has been assigned an attorney. A federal judge advised them of the charges on Wednesday and scheduled a Jan. 7 court hearing at which they may enter a plea. Prosecutors filed charges against a third female day-care worker, but later dropped the case for unspecified reasons.

Blakeney hung up when a reporter called and identified himself Wednesday. Efforts to reach Smallwood-Brisco were unsuccessful.

An affidavit that Bibby wrote to support the charges against Smallwood-Brisco listed numerous instances of physical abuse against 2-year-olds in her care. On Sept. 24, the affidavit says, she struck a boy with a toy hard enough that the child could be seen rubbing “his head as though he were in pain,” Bibby wrote, describing the video. Two days later she allegedly struck a 2-year-old boy with her fist.

“As a result of the hit, the child’s head jerked back several inches,” Bibby wrote. “The child then held his mouth and began crying.” The affidavit says that Smallwood-Brisco dragged a boy across the floor, pulling his leg, and was seen pinching 2-year-olds at least twice.

When Smallwood-Brisco was confronted about the footage, she told investigators that she “has never gotten physical with the children,” Bibby wrote.

The affidavit filed in Blakeney’s case says she struck, pinched and shoved 2-year-olds. On Sept. 26, she allegedly grabbed a boy by the arm to take him to a corner. “At that time she also punched her knee into the child’s back with enough force to roughly push the child’s body forward,” Bibby wrote.

Later that day, she pinched the boy, grabbed him by the hand to push him off a sofa and moved him against a bookshelf.

“Blakeney approached this same child as he sat up against the bookshelf and held his arm down, effectively keeping him in place, while she held a white, sticky rodent trap full of bugs right next to his face,” Bibby wrote.

When confronted by investigators, Blakeney invoked her right to remain silent.

Scott Wilson and Magda Jean-Lewis contributed to this report.