Report on Child Abuse at Military Day Cares Sparks Tough Questions for Navy, Army Leaders on Capitol Hill

April 17, 2024
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, testifies before a Senate Armed Services committee hearing

Top Navy and Army officials faced tough questions Tuesday from lawmakers on what steps they are taking to prevent child abuse at military day-care centers after revealed serious gaps in policy and oversight related to cases of abuse in three states.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, during testimony before a House committee, suggested working with the office of Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, to “look at the regulation and look at some ways that we can strengthen it and make sure that we’re notifying parents if something happens with their child.”

Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, responding to questions from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a hearing in the Senate said that he was “quite familiar” with the details of an abuse case reported by at a child-care center on Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California. He assured the senator that the Navy had already investigated and addressed issues revealed by the case, as well as another instance of abuse at a military day care in Hawaii.

Read Next: Arlington Horse-Drawn Funerals to Remain Suspended as Families Grapple with Burial Arrangements revealed last week that when incidents of abuse occur at child-care centers, the military service branches have policies in place that, broadly, prioritize protecting themselves instead of having incidents investigated, all while offering minimal safeguards to guarantee accountability. Parents also said that they were kept in the dark while officials formulated public relations responses.

Internal documents even showed that base commanders and military police units often don’t know who is responsible for reporting and investigating allegations of abuse, which, in turn, means cases grind to a crawl or quickly get closed with little resolution.

What little accountability occurs seems to often happen out of view of parents and the public.

Del Toro, speaking of the abuse case at China Lake, boasted to Congress that “the director of that child-care center was actually fired … there were actually seven other employees that were fired.” inquired about the director’s status after first reporting the story of abuse there in 2022, and a base official confirmed that the director retired a month before the child abuse was discovered.

The Navy didn’t tell parents or the public about any of the firings at the time or the fact that, according to internal emails reviewed by, at least two employees were facing criminal child-abuse allegations.

The trouble at the small naval air weapons station in California seems to have begun when officials discovered that China Lake’s closed-circuit video recordings weren’t being monitored. Once the new interim head for the center was installed in October 2022, she “observed conditions and actions by staff that were ‘concerning,'” internal emails show.

The base commander directed a three-day closure of the center for a “safety stand-down,” as well as staff training, and he ordered a full review of the footage they had — 30 days’ worth.

It wouldn’t be until early in November 2022 — when staff were finally able to review all of the video — that officials realized the footage captured 132 unique policy violations that included at least 15 examples of “rough handling of children” that, according to an internal email was defined as “pulling, pushing, grabbing” of children.

Three workers would go on to be identified as having violated the Navy’s touch policy, but the parent of one of the victims told that Navy leaders ultimately decided no rules were broken. The Navy, including the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, has not said whether any employee at China Lake faced criminal charges.

Still, Del Toro assured Murray that the sea service “actually learned those lessons and we’ve applied all those lessons throughout all … child development centers from two years ago” and that, despite the “numerous policy violations” that they were aware of, training was “conducted and applied across all CDCs in the Navy and Marine Corps today.” asked Del Toro’s office for more details about his remarks and what lessons or measures he was referring to, but was told that there was nothing additional to add beyond his testimony.

Ahead of publishing its initial report, also asked Navy officials whether they felt that their current policies are sufficient to protect children from abuse or if Navy leaders were happy with the level of accountability and transparency that occurred at China Lake and the Ford Island Child Development Center near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

At Pearl Harbor, Army Capt. Jeremy Kuykendall and his wife Kate’s daughter, Isabella, was abused over three days’ time at the Ford Island daycare in 2022. CCTV footage showed that the 15-month-old girl was pinched, smothered, thrown up against a wall and handled so roughly at the hands of two workers that a pediatrician felt that she even suffered a concussion, in addition to the other injuries.

At the time, Navy officials didn’t point to any specific lessons or changes to training that was being conducted since the abuse at China Lake and Pearl Harbor became public.

Instead, officials noted that incidents of abuse are “exceptionally rare” and that the service is “always reviewing and enhancing our policies and practices to meet and exceed the high standards expected by our military families.”

Meanwhile, Wormuth struggled to explain why the Army’s new policy aimed at curbing instances of problematic sexual behavior between children was considered “controlled unclassified information,” or CUI.

As reported, a child at a day care serving the Army War College in Pennsylvania had injuries consistent with sexual contact, and officials believe they were caused by another child. But service officials, and the day care, did not properly document the incident and delayed telling the parents for days.

The Army doesn’t have any clear public policy on documenting or reporting such incidents, whereas civilian day cares are often required by state law to do so.

It was unclear why the Army had categorized its policy in a way that kept it from the public. But Wormuth, during the hearing, told Tokuda that “CUI, I think, stands for basically … unclassified information.”

While accurate, military officials readily employ CUI as a way to protect documents from being made public, and was told by Army officials that they were unsuccessful in declassifying the policy in time for publication.

“I’m confident we can find a way to make sure that our regulations and policies are available for parents and we can be transparent with them,” Wormuth told lawmakers.

Related: Unsupervised: Military Child Care Centers Slow to Report Abuse with Little Oversight

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