Over the past decade, soldiers, spouses and others physically and sexually and otherwise abused nearly 30,000 children in Army families. Children have been beaten, tortured and starved to death in shockingly cruel acts of discipline; 118 kids died as a result.
Though the rate of child abuse and neglect in the Army is far lower than in the national average, cases in the civilian population have remained flat in recent years while they have alarmingly spiked in the Army community. The 3,698 cases last year were a 28 percent spike over 2009.
It’s heartbreaking, as tragic and insidious as the military suicide and sexual assault epidemics. But while those issues have finally and rightfully come under intense public and political pressure for change, the assault on Army children has largely remained in the shadows.
As a result, children have suffered in greater numbers.
Army leaders cannot be inside every home or pinpoint every potential abuse case, but much more can be done to protect vulnerable children.
The Army provides some resources for struggling families and to its credit is rolling out several more programs aimed at behavioral health support, a critical component for a community in which spouses often are under unique stresses, including long separations while troops train and deploy.
The Army hopes that the support system will make it easier to spot those at risk for domestic violence, suicide and child abuse. But the rollout won’t be complete until 2017 — if the funding holds up in these tight budget times. And the programs are voluntary.
More such resources and mandatory participation should be core components of attacking the child-abuse problem.
But before even providing such resources, more has to be done to prevent individuals prone to misconduct and violence from joining the Army. Spc. Joseph Allsop asphyxiated his 5-month-old daughter, Jade, during a sexual assault. The investigation led to the discovery that Allsop had a sealed juvenile record as a child molester, a record shielded from Army background checks.
Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno admitted to Congress last month that the Army “has to do a better job” vetting potential soldiers. But laws in many states prevent review of juvenile records, including when individuals seek to join the military.
The House has passed and the Senate is considering legislation prohibiting anyone convicted of a felony sex crime from entering the military, a policy already adopted in March by the Defense Department. The difference is that Congress would prevent any waivers and put the prohibition in law. This a good start, but none of the legislation covers juvenile records for sex crimes — they should be included.
Beyond legislation banning sex criminals, and resources for stressed families, the Army needs to elevate awareness inside its own community of the problem of child abuse. Just as leadership has been campaigning to get soldiers to recognize and act on signs of potential suicidal behavior and to call out others for sexual harassment, it must educate Army families to spot potential child abuse and speak up.
Marcus Holloway might be alive today if neighbors, school officials or others on Fort Sill, Okla., had noticed his suffering or his family’s situation. Marcus, 10, starved to death over five months. He weighed 44 pounds when he died. No one noticed that the boy and his sister weren’t in school, or that they were in housing illegally.
The system failed Jade and Marcus and almost 30,000 other Army children over the past decade.
The Army has to do a better job looking out for its kids.