The House on Tuesday passed a bill that would require anyone employed by the Defense Department military personnel, defense contractors and civilian employees to report cases of suspected child abuse on military installations to state child protective service agencies in addition to reporting such suspected crimes up their chain of command.
The legislation was approved by voice vote and sent to the Senate for consideration.
Called Talia's Law, the bill is named for five-year-old Talia Williams who was tortured and beaten to death by her father — an active-duty Army specialist at the time — and step-mother in 2005 at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii.
Talia's mother, Tarshia Williams, sued the U.S. government in 2008 for what she argued were failures by military officials to report suspicions that her daughter was being abused. Williams was awarded $2 million in a settlement last May.
The Defense Department had signed a memorandum of understanding with the State of Hawaii in 2013 that said the state's child welfare services agency was "primarily" responsible for handling instances of child abuse on military bases. But DOD also has its own parallel system for child and domestic abuse investigations.
Suspected cases of child abuse are reported to military police or the installation's Family Advocacy Program, which work in coordination to identify and investigate instances of child abuse. Those mandated by law to report suspected child abuse are usually professionally involved with children, such as day-care workers and doctors.
The U.S. District Court of Hawaii, where Williams brought her suit, found that various individuals failed to report Talia's case, including members of the military police, doctors, and an employee with the Family Advocacy Program – all covered by the House bill.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaking about Talia's case on the Senate floor last June, said information about the abuse never reached the Army provost, whom she said was the only person required to report to the state's child welfare services.
However, groups like the Department of Defense Education Activity and military law enforcement are required to report to local and state child protective services, as well as to the Family Advocacy Program, according to existing law.
Additionally, a defense official said that the Pentagon has previously recommended passage of legislation to improve communication between the Defense Department and states' child protective service agencies.
Hawaiian Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai, both Democrats, introduced the bill in the House last November. Both are active-duty military officers in the Hawaii Army National Guard; Gabbard serves as a military police major and Takai serves as a lieutenant colonel.
Citing the 29,000 cases of child abuse and neglect in the military in the past decade, Gabbard said on the House floor Tuesday that her bill creates the same protections for military children that exist for any other child.
Rates of child abuse and neglect in the military, though half the rate typically seen in the civilian population, have been on the rise since 2010, according to a 2014 memorandum from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rosemary Williams.
Incidents of child abuse and neglect rose 10 percent in 2014, a Defense Department spokesman, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said last September. On Tuesday, Sakrisson said via email that it is Defense Department policy to not comment on pending legislation.
Kelly Hruska, director of government relations for the National Military Families Association, said many child abuse cases involve service members with multiple combat deployments. It is necessary to make sure resources are available to address the effects of combat experience, Hruska said. Hruska said the focus now should be on preventing the system from failing any more children.
"We need to make sure children have the best protection possible. We need to make sure potential reports are not being ignored or falling through the cracks," she said. "As a military spouse, I can say I hope (a case like Talia’s) never happens again."
Military children serve a strong support role within their families, according to Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who asked her colleagues to support the legislation. Forced to move frequently, military children face greater academic and emotional challenges and rely on their relationships with the adults in their lives, she said.
It is inexcusable, Stefanik said "when those adults that these children trust the most hurt them in any way… Anyone who abuses or neglects a child … must be held accountable."