Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Dec. 18 at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP)
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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday ordered a worldwide review of hiring practices at all U.S. military day care centers after the Army revealed that it discovered problems with security background checks of workers at a Washington-area center.
Shortly after the Army said it was launching an investigation of hiring practices at its 283 day care centers worldwide, Panetta's press secretary, George Little, issued a statement saying Panetta supports the review.
Little said Panetta has directed each of the military services to conduct similar reviews. The actions stem from the Sept. 26 arrests of two Army employees accused of assaulting children at a Fort Myer, Va., day care center. But the problem there apparently is much deeper; indications are that at least 30 workers at the Fort Myer facility have histories that call into question their suitability to care for children, two officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation into worker backgrounds at Fort Myer is not completed.
"Military children are precious members of our Defense Department family," Panetta said. "As a department, protecting our service members and their families is paramount."
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 derogatory information.
In addition, Fort Myer began a review of the background files of about two dozen other day care workers to determine whether they should be fired, the Army said. That review apparently is ongoing.
"The safety of the children under our care is our most important responsibility," said Col. Fern Sumpter, the Fort Myer commander. "The quality of their care and safety has been and will continue to be our most important priority."
Sumpter 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.
Of the two Fort Myer day care workers who were arrested, one faces five counts of assault and the other faces four counts of assault, according to the Army.
Based on the findings at Fort Myer, Army Secretary John McHugh said Tuesday he ordered an Army-wide review of hiring practices and management at every day care center.
"These initial findings are not only troubling, they are unacceptable, and we will make certain that adequate policies and procedures are in place, and that they are strictly followed and fully enforced," McHugh said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.