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The Army's hidden child abuse epidemic

30,000 kids abused, 118 killed; Army saw 40 percent increase in cases from 2009 to 2012

Jul. 29, 2013 - 11:52AM   |  
Army Times takes an in-depth look at child abuse
Army Times takes an in-depth look at child abuse:
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“She kept crying and I ... slapped her across the head, which in turn, made her more upset, and then I lost control ... I began to shake her; I threw her onto the bed, where she rolled toward the window hitting her head against the windowsill ... I then lifted her up ... threw her into her crib ... she began crying even more ... I dropp(ed) her to the floor and I sat on her then I got up and laid on top of her releasing the full weight of my body on her ... (she) kept crying, so then I picked her up off the floor, placing both of her arms at her side and ‘bear hugged’ her very tightly, where her cry became faint.”

Those words are part of a written confession by former Sgt. Kevin Randal Hill.

Hill’s daughter, Liyah, was a healthy 5-month-old baby. Now, because of the multiple serious injuries inflicted by her father, she is disabled and requires care for life. Medical experts say she probably will live until age 15 or so. Until then, her mother, also a soldier stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., will care for her.

Hill is serving a 12-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas.

While the Army’s intense public attention has been focused on suicides, domestic violence and sex assaults in the ranks, Liyah is part of an epidemic of child abuse inside the Army so under the radar that even top brass were unaware of its scope and an alarming spike in cases. Nearly 30,000 children have suffered abuse or neglect in Army homes over the past decade, an Army Times investigation shows.

Beatings, torture and starvation claimed the lives of 118 Army children.

More than 1,400 children were subjected to sexual abuse.

“The Army put a lot of focus on domestic violence because there’s been a lot of political pressure,” said Dr. Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager at Army Medical Command. “There hasn’t been a concurrent interest in child abuse.”

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell said he was not aware of the extent of the epidemic.

When the Army suspects child abuse or neglect, Campbell said, “we’ll investigate and prosecute and try to make sure we have the right program in place to take care of the soldiers and their families and do what’s right there.”

Of the 29,552 cases of child abuse and neglect in active-duty Army families from 2003 through 2012, according to Army Central Registry data, 15,557 were committed by soldiers, the others by civilians — mostly spouses.

The Army’s rate of child abuse was 4.5 cases per 1,000 children for 2011. The civilian rate was 27.4 per 1,000 children, according to the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But the number of Army cases has spiked 28 percent between 2008 and 2011, while the number of civilian cases has increased by 1.1 percent.

These cases represent the neglect and abuse taking place throughout the Army, on every post, in families that live on and off the installation:

■ Fort Campbell, Ky.: Spc. Joshua Ryan Starner, 25, and his wife, Caitlyn Metz, await trial on charges in connection with the rape and murder of their 23-month-old son, Keegan.

■ Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.: Maj. John Jackson and his wife were indicted in April on 17 counts of child abuse for allegedly depriving their three foster children of food and water.

■ Fort Carson, Colo.: Pfc. Roderick Elam was sentenced in March to 32 years in prison for beating his 2-month-old daughter Harmone’e to death in December 2011.

■ Schofield Barracks, Hawaii: Spc. Naeem Williams is charged in connection with the torture death of his daughter, Talia. His wife, Delilah, has pleaded guilty to murder and will testify against her husband, who faces the death penalty. Trial is scheduled for next year.

War and waivers

The Army’s child abuse and neglect epidemic is tragic and rapidly getting worse: Last year’s 3,698 reported cases of abuse and neglect represented a 40 percent increase over the 2,626 in 2009.

The causes are not fully explained or understood anywhere, but the spike in abuse and neglect cases dovetails with the grind of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a policy of allowing people with criminal backgrounds into the ranks.

The Army offers a number of programs providing support resources to Army parents under stress, but officials concede difficulties in preventing abuse cases.

“We have problems identifying them before it becomes a tragedy,” Robichaux said.

Officials, troops and others in the community missed significant evidence that children were in danger in several cases reviewed by Army Times. Two of those cases resulted in the death of the child.

In one case, a child was starved to death over a five-month period while he, his mother and sister were living illegally in Army family housing at Fort Sill.

In a second case at Schofield Barracks, day care employees called military police to report that a 5-year-old girl had marks on her body that looked like abuse. But an Army doctor who examined her told police he was “98 to 99 percent” sure it wasn’t abuse. No one was notified, the child was returned to her parents. She was beaten to death by her soldier father four months later.

The 2009-12 spike coincides with the end of combat in Iraq, a drawdown in Afghanistan and the return of tens of thousands of troops to their homes. Some soldiers who harmed children may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress.

But child abuse cases plagued the Army even as the wars were at their peaks and stateside posts were practically ghost towns. The stress on spouses left to deal alone with domestic issues often was at the root of child abuse cases.

Some of the problem of abusive troops in the ranks owes to the fact that the Army sometimes either does a poor job vetting those seeking to join or is denied access to criminal histories that would help weed out undesirables.

Spc. Joseph Allsop entered the Army despite a juvenile record for child molestation, a record the Army didn’t learn about until years later, after he abused several kids. According to Army Recruiting Command, about 10 to 15 states will not allow access to juvenile records during routine background checks of recruits.

Recruiters are forced to rely on their questioning of potential recruits about previous scrapes with the law. Allsop apparently lied about his past, and Army officials were not allowed to review his criminal record as a juvenile.

A spokesman for Recruiting Command said a person with a sex offender conviction would not have been allowed to enter the Army.

Allsop is now serving two life sentencesin a Texas prison for sexually assaulting and murdering his 5-month-old daughter, Jade.

In congressional testimony in June, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno acknowledged that the Army’s background checks are often incomplete.

“Background checks are done,” Odierno said in response to a Senate Armed Services Committee question June 4 about preventing sexual assault. “But the ability to identify sexual offenders is certainly not 100 percent right now. We have to do a better job of doing that.“

Although his testimony was about sexual assault, it also applies to child abuse.

In some cases, the Army knew the soldiers’ troubled backgrounds and still allowed them into the Army.

From 2003 to 2008, the Army enrolled 75,197 soldiers on waivers, more than half of them related to illegal conduct in civilian life. Of those, 34,338 soldiers were allowed into the ranks in spite of records that included felony arrests and convictions, or serious misdemeanor violations, according to Army statistics.

Army officials refuse to say whether any of the soldiers involved in child abuse and neglect cases were admitted on waivers.

Support from the Army

In 2005, the Army began establishing child and behavioral health centers at major installations. They are now at five bases; the plan is to establish them at all large bases by 2017.

“The Army has a number of programs aimed at helping soldiers at home,” said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler. “Military family life consultants don’t just focus on post-traumatic stress and individual soldiers, they also have opportunities for family members. We’ve also got child and family assistance centers, and new parents support programs that are available for soldiers.”

The Army has also started the School Behavioral Health Program, operating at Army schools at eight major Army installations. The Army has also created a parenting course, providing specialists who will teach young families how to cope with newborns.

And since 2008, all Army hospitals are not to discharge newborn babies unless the parents watch a video about shaken baby syndrome and aregiven a tip card: “Tips on Soothing a Crying Baby.”

“The problem,” said Robichaux, is that many soldiers don’t get such briefings, “either because they were not in the Army when the child was born or the perpetrator was not the biological father and therefore not present when such instruction could have been given.” Instead, sometimes soldiers “use violence to get the child to stop crying,” he said.

Other than the shaken-baby briefing, most programs are voluntary.

And Army leaders say they are reluctant to require soldiers to take advantage of them, despite the Army’s inclination to order soldiers to special classes for all sorts of reasons. Soldiers have to take an Army motorcycle safety course before they can ride on post.

“We do have mandatory training for motorcycles, and we still have people who choose not to obey that training and unfortunately sometimes that causes their death,” Chandler said.

“You have to have that balance between a person’s right to have a family if they choose to and the actions and how they live their lives,” he said.

Chandler said it’s key that Army noncommissioned officers and other leaders get closer to their soldiers to recognize any stresses they may be under and to recognize behaviors that may be unhealthy to them, their families or others.

“I expect leaders to be engaged with soldiers’ lives,” Chandler said. “Leadership is responsible for knowing what’s going on in their soldiers’ lives and that means something more than understanding what size hat and how they did on the [physical training] test.”

He expects leaders to know where their soldiers live and to drive past their homes.

“If you drive past their house and they’ve got a couple of washing machines and a car on blocks,” said Chandler, “there’s probably a problem and you’ve got to start asking some questions.”■

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