By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An escalating investigation into two child care centers at an Army base near the Pentagon has resulted in the removal of at least 33 workers after two employees were charged with assaulting children, a defense official said on Wednesday.
The investigation, which began in September but was only brought to the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday, raised questions about the military's handling of the incident and put the Army on the defensive.
"No one likes to be surprised about a development like this and this came as a surprise," Pentagon spokesman George Little said. "I don't know where the breakdown was. It's something we're looking into and clearly this information didn't get reported up the chain of command as quickly as we think it should have."
Army spokesman George Wright said the local commander at Fort Myer, the home of the two highest ranking members of the Army, had dealt with the issue quickly and escalated it appropriately over the course of the two months since the initial assault charges.
"We learned about the problem, the local authorities at the installation took immediate action to address the allegations, arrests were made, investigations were started," he said, adding that the moves were "escalatory in nature of severity" and aimed at ensuring the welfare of soldiers and their families.
The two employees charged with assault in September made their initial appearance at a court in Alexandria on Wednesday, a defense official said. One was charged with four counts of assault and the other with five.
A review of all background information for the 130 workers at the two day care centers at the fort determined that 31 employees had prior criminal records that had not been disclosed during their initial background checks, the defense official said.
Ten of the employees had minor records. The remainder had criminal records that would have required them to obtain suitability waivers from the garrison commander in order to obtain employment, the defense official said.
Six of the employees had criminal records involving drug use, while 13 had assault convictions. Two others had sexual assault records, but neither case rose to the level that would have required them to be included on a sexual offender list, the official said.
All 31 employees with records have been removed from their positions at the child development centers at Fort Myer, and one of the facilities has been closed.
Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter, the head of the Army's Installation Management Command, has ordered an audit of personnel backgrounds at all child development centers worldwide in response to the findings.
Army Secretary John McHugh ordered a review on Tuesday of the oversight and management of all child development centers across the Army, plus a review of compliance with regulations and policies regarding the background records of staff, the defense official said.
After learning about the investigation, Panetta ordered all military services to review their hiring practices at base child care centers around the world, Little said.
"The care of our children is paramount," he said, noting that more than 1 million youngsters belong to military families. "(Secretary Panetta) will settle for nothing less than the highest standards of care for military children."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)