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WASHINGTON — President Obama called the Army secretary to express concerns over arrests and the discovery of problems with background checks at an Army day care center and to urge a speedy investigation, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The call at 10 p.m. Tuesday to Army Secretary John McHugh came against the backdrop of last week's massacre of young children in a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
A White House official said the president relayed his concern about reports of abuse at the Fort Myer, Va., 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.
Obama has been outspoken in his demands for a quick government reaction to the Newtown shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, and he visited the Connecticut town Sunday to offer condolences to parents and the community.
The Army had no immediate comment on the president's call.
The Pentagon is reviewing hiring procedures at military day care centers, schools, youth centers and other facilities where children are present, after revelations that some employees at the day care center had criminal records. Pentagon leaders were angry that it took months for the Army to disclose the problems to top officials and the public.
Defense Secretary Leon 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."
Little said Wednesday that officials also are questioning why it took three months for the Army to inform Panetta about arrests and problems with background checks at the day care center. Two people were arrested in September on multiple charges of assault against children at the center.
Little also said reports that parents of children at the center weren't told about the problems indicate there may have been a serious breakdown in communications.
"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," said Little. "We want to insure that there's consistency in the standards and policies and practices in hiring wherever military youth are involved."
The actions stem from the Sept. 26 arrests of two Army employees. One was charged with five counts of assault and the second was charged with four counts of assault.
But the problems at Fort Myer apparently went much deeper. Indications are that at least 30 workers at the facility have histories that call into question their suitability to care for children, according to two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation into worker backgrounds at Fort Myer has not been completed.
After the Fort Myer arrests, the Army replaced the day care center's management team and found what the Army called "derogatory information" in the background of an unspecified number of other employees there. Army officials did not reveal the information, and officials said it's not clear if the background checks were not done, were not sufficient or simply were not used appropriately in screening personnel.
Col. Fern Sumpter, the Fort Myer commander, said the day care center was closed "out of an abundance of caution" and the children moved to a separate day care center at Fort Myer. A Fort Myer spokeswoman, Mary Ann Hodges, said the center was closed on Dec. 13.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.