Following the death of a 7-month-old baby girl in military housing in Hawaii, defense officials are evaluating how military installations deal with unauthorized family child care providers.
They’re also looking at whether any policy changes are needed.
The basic details about these new efforts were provided by a Defense Department official in a letter to military spouses who had expressed their concern about the child care situation.
The spouses wrote a letter to second lady Karen Pence, expressing their sense of urgency of the need for more funding and updated laws to ensure service members have access to safe, affordable and good-quality care for their children.
Pence’s office confirmed that the spouses have received a response from DoD officials.
The letter to the spouses, in response to their letter to Pence, came from James Stewart, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, who also stated that DoD has “zero tolerance” for unauthorized child care in either government-operated or privatized housing on installations.
DoD officials didn’t immediately provide further details about the new review of unauthorized child care on military bases.
The three — an Air Force wife and two Army wives — lived at housing at Aliamanu Military Reservation in Hawaii, where a 7-month-old Abigail Lobisch was found dead on Feb. 24, in a babysitter’s home. Sources familiar with the situation told Military Times that the provider, a Navy wife, was not licensed or authorized to care for children in her home, and that base officials had also ordered her to stop providing child care in her home twice. Officials have not confirmed that. Army Garrison Hawaii officials have declined to comment on their investigation into the situation.
The baby’s death was caused by toxic levels of antihistamine in her body, according to autopsy results cited in an affidavit accompanying the arrest warrant that was filed by a detective with the Honolulu Police Department. The caregiver, Dixie Denise Villa, was arrested on July 20 and charged with manslaughter.
In order to provide child care in housing on military installations, spouses must meet stringent requirements, including background checks and extensive training in a variety of health, safety and academic areas ranging from child CPR to curriculum and nutrition. Periodic inspections are required.
If an unauthorized child care provider refuses to cease operations, installation leaders have the authority to revoke the provider’s housing privileges, according to DoD regulations.
“This daycare had been repeatedly reported to Army officials and privatized base housing for its continued unlicensed operations and unsafe activities over the span of 15 months,” the spouses wrote in their letter to Karen Pence. It was signed by Air Force wife Katie Camario and Army wives Kelly Norris and Stephanie McWhirter.
In an interview, Camario said the spouses have struggled with their desire to do the right thing by speaking out for military children, while being concerned about how their actions could result in possible retaliation that could hurt their husbands’ careers.
“But this is the right thing to do for other children who could be in the same situation,” said Camario, who had reported her concerns about the daycare home to Army officials, before the baby’s death.
“Military spouses want to work, we want to advance our careers, but are often slapped with year-long childcare waitlists. Many of us have turned down job offers because there are no safe daycares for our children,” the spouses wrote.
“Yet others don’t have a choice and need to work,” they wrote, adding that some families then turn to unlicensed childcare. “They are reduced to practically begging complete strangers to watch their kids. Sadly, the children who are being dropped off at these homes are not afforded the protection that comes with licensing. Instead, they are left in situations that are unregulated and at times dangerous.”
The spouses applauded a legislative proposal in the House that would add more funding for child care, noting it was a “great first step.” In addition, the spouses said, laws are needed “to prevent the massive backlog” and to prevent the unlicensed daycares from existing on military bases.
DoD child care has been recognized as being among the best in the nation. At child development centers, parents’ fees are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, so the care is generally more affordable than in the civilian community. Authorized family child care providers on installations also can in many cases receive subsidies, in addition to the parents’ fees.
But for years, military families have struggled to find child care, as the capacity in some centers can’t meet the need. The Senate Armed Services Committee this year noted that 68 percent of the child care need across the DOD is clustered in four geographic regions — San Diego, the National Capital Region, Hawaii, and Norfolk. At some of these locations, officials have trouble hiring enough employees to staff the child development centers; in others, there’s a highly qualified workforce available, but the local installations don’t have the facility capacity to increase the number of children.
The committee directed DoD to review the child development centers in those four regions and submit a report on the waitlists, workforce inadequacies and facility capacities; specific locations where either CDC construction or public-private partnerships could increase the child care capacity; and incentives that could be used to recruit and retain child care providers at CDCs.
“Our ultimate goal is for military kids to be in safe, regulated childcares and for families to have available childcare wherever they may be assigned,” the spouses wrote in their letter to Pence.
The enormity of the issue hit them at Abigail Lobisch’s funeral, they wrote.
“Her tiny little casket being walked out of the ceremony broke our hearts into a million pieces and our resolve to bring change to this military child care problem was cemented.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.