Unsupervised: Military Child Care Centers Slow to Report Abuse with Little Oversight

Army Capt. Jeremy Kuykendall and his wife Kate, cradle their daughter
Army Capt. Jeremy Kuykendall and his wife Kate, cradle their youngest daughter Isabella at their new home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on April 7, 2024. Bella was abused at a military day care center in Hawaii when she was little more than a year old. (Chase Castor/ Military.com)

Kate and her husband Jeremy thought their youngest daughter Bella was just having a mild case of separation anxiety when they picked her up from her first day at the Ford Island Child Development Center near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

Bella's face was red and patchy, and her tiny voice was raspy from crying through the day. Their usually bubbly 15-month-old, with cheeks and limbs so adorably "chunky," went on to spend the next two days either hysterically crying or noticeably quiet and withdrawn. She wet herself at night for the first time in a while, her parents said, and she lost her appetite.

On the third day of going to the center in August 2022, she clutched at Kate as she was walked into the facility, crying out, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, no."

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In her gut, Kate felt something was wrong, but she'd been told separation anxiety was common. She had decided to go back to work, and she knew it was going to be a tough transition for Bella. Besides, Kate thought to herself, if something had happened at the day care, she or her husband, an intelligence officer in the Army, would have been told.

But the next day, Kate found bruises on Bella's thigh. Later, she would find out that her daughter's cheeks weren't just red and swollen from crying -- a day care worker had shoved a photo of Bella's parents into her face so hard that her little head had turned away a full 90 degrees as a second worker held her.

CCTV from the day care center that was checked only after Kate and Jeremy Kuykendall requested a review later revealed that Bella had been physically abused by at least two of the workers. She was pinched, shoved, smothered and pushed up against a wall, the Kuykendalls told Military.com.

"I just started crying and didn't know what to do," Kate said of the moment she found out about the abuse. "I felt like I failed her so much. She gave me all the signs, and I didn't listen, you know?"

No official police or command reports were filed on the day law enforcement responded to the first report of potential abuse. The day care failed to properly document the injuries or to tell the parents the full scope of what happened, aside from the story that Bella had been crying. It was only after more than a year that two of the three workers allegedly responsible for abuse were charged in a civilian court. Two of the workers involved were allowed to keep working for five months before one was fired and the other quit.

The Kuykendalls -- like most of the other nearly dozen military families interviewed during Military.com's investigation, most of whom requested that their names were withheld -- had run into a common dilemma: Getting even basic information from the military's day care system about what happened to their children requires jumping through enormous hoops over the course of months and years. Even when they are told their children were harmed, getting accountability seems impossible.

If their kids had been at civilian day care centers, local law in most states would have required immediate notification and documentation of incidents so that parents could take action. Military day care facilities aren't required to abide by those state laws and, in many cases, existing service policy would run afoul of those requirements.

The Military.com investigation into military day care centers revealed that service branch rules generally prioritize protecting the institution, keep parents in the dark while officials formulate a public relations response, and have minimal safeguards to guarantee accountability. Base commanders and military police units often don't know who is responsible for reporting and investigating allegations of abuse, allowing cases to slow to a crawl while offices shirk responsibility.

The publication interviewed a dozen families and their lawyers, all with similar stories of not being told when their child was injured and, in many cases, parents assuming hefty legal bills to force the military branches to tell them what happened.

The publication also reviewed hundreds of pages of military regulations and more than 1,000 pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, much of which was provided by the families. FOIAs are typically a process reserved for journalists and legal advocacy groups, and are a mechanism that can force the government to relinquish information. But in many cases, families had to go that route for basic information on how their child was injured or traumatized while at military day care.

"It's more about protecting the institution and the commander," Korvin Kraics, an attorney for one family said.

Military couple ponder day care hurdles
(Aaron Provost for Military.com)

The lack of accountability comes as the Pentagon has struggled to staff its day cares. The Army, which makes up the lion's share of facilities, has its day cares staffed at only about 70%. Hiring quality staff has been a challenge, partly due to relatively low wages. In most cases, day care workers do not need any qualifications other than a high school diploma and most of the training is on the job -- although officials stressed that employees undergo comprehensive background checks.

And with child care costs rising meteorically across the country, Congress and senior military planners are eyeing a major expansion of day care services over the next decade to make sure troops can go to work. The Navy is currently building four more child care centers, with plans for an additional dozen in the next several years. For many military families, the subsidized care provided by bases may be their only option.

The Army's regulation on managing day cares details how best to protect the institution, including tight coordination with numerous echelons before parents can be told anything. This set of instructions includes coordination with public affairs if the incident risks garnering media attention. Public affairs is also instructed to provide guidance to day care management and commanders before talking to parents.

Eight families interviewed by Military.com whose children were injured or otherwise had some incident were never given copies of the incident report form -- something commonly provided at civilian day cares in the private sector.

Families who have dealt with harm to their children at facilities managed by the Navy criticized the speed at which they were told about incidents with their children while Navy officials have said their policies don't mandate speedy notification.

Throughout the monthslong effort to hold Bella's abusers accountable, the Kuykendalls ran into instance after instance of command components either denying their ability to act or shifting the responsibility to a different office.

In a Jan. 24, 2023, meeting with Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam garrison leaders and the Judge Advocate General office, base leadership acknowledged the overall failures of the reporting system but ultimately placed the blame not on the policy, but on individuals and on the Honolulu Police Department.

"How did HPD not take the case? Why did they not take the case? Why did it sit on CID's [the base Criminal Investigation Division] desk and not communicate with HPD that next day to pick it up?" Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam garrison deputy, Lt. Col. Jenell Macias, told the Kuykendalls in a conversation, according to the couple. Military.com reviewed documentation that verified their account. The base's public affairs office directed a request for comment about the conversation Macias had with the Kuykendalls to Navy Public Affairs, who did not respond ahead of publication.

"A lot of that stuff that happened was wrong," Macias told them. "A lot of it is written like it's supposed to be, but people just didn't do it."

Later, during a March 2023 meeting with officials, including JAG officers, regarding getting access to footage and details on what happened to the offending employees, the Kuykendalls were told that the day care was not responsible for making decisions on consequences. That choice allegedly lies with garrison personnel or higher, they said.

"There's too much shit that happened to our child here," Jeremy Kuykendall said. "[The people that were supposed to help] all failed. The cops failed … and the Navy sure as fuck failed."

Bella, whose legs are shown here, at her home
The Kuykendalls said CCTV footage from the day care revealed Bella, whose legs are shown here at her home on April 7, 2024, was pinched, smothered, and knocked and dragged around, among other forms of physical assault. (Chase Castor/ Military.com)

When Military.com reached out to the Pentagon about the issues that families highlighted and the apparent gaps in policies the reviewed cases and documents demonstrated, leaders said that abuse by employees is not tolerated.

"Gaining and maintaining the trust of our service members and their families is sacred; we remain relentless in our pursuit to dedicate resources, services, policies and programs to support them, especially during difficult times," Patricia Montes Barron, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community & family policy, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Vice Adm. Scott Gray, the head of Navy Installations Command and the man who oversees the service's child care centers, said that "incidents are rare" and said that the Navy "takes swift action to report and thoroughly review each incident against our own policies, practices and staffing to prevent future occurrences; hold violators accountable; and provide the safest care environment possible."

The Army did not provide a statement from its leadership and declined to provide interviews ahead of publication.

Weaponized ignorance

Questions about who is responsible for incidents at military child care centers were prevalent in nearly every case described by families to Military.com and appeared to be driven in large part by the fact that the services' policies create a complex web of reporting requirements that involved agencies whose jurisdictions either included or excluded military installations as part of their mandate.

Military officials overseeing the actual operation of the centers have repeatedly said that their responsibility is simply to spot abuse and make reports to the appropriate agencies. However, the policies covering that mandate are weak.

At Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California, emails between officials show that it took months before leadership realized that the videos at their center weren't being reviewed, meaning potential incidents could have been occurring and supervisors wouldn't have noticed.

Navy policy does not compel officials to review those recordings with any regularity, and centers have to keep footage for only 30 days -- potential problems that parents at China Lake would later raise with the base commander in a public forum.

The discovery that conditions weren't being monitored at that base happened after a new interim head for the center was installed in October 2022, who "observed conditions and actions by staff that were 'concerning,'" China Lake's commander, Capt. Jeremy Vaughan, told his boss in an email on Oct. 20, 2022.

Vaughan directed a three-day closure of the center for a "safety stand-down" as well as staff training. He also ordered a full review of the footage they had.

Four days later, the interim director who had raised the alarm, Mary Graves, would write an email informing Vaughan and others that seven employees were being placed on administrative leave.

One employee of the center turned herself in that day to local law enforcement to face charges of felony child abuse, emails show. Officials also were aware of another staff member who resigned in August after being accused of child abuse.

But the Navy didn't tell parents or the public about any of these suspensions or arrests at the time; it wouldn't be until early in November 2022 -- when staff were finally able to review 30 days of video -- that officials would start to notify parents of the mistreatment violations that they were discovering in the footage.

A base spokeswoman then told Military.com on Nov. 9 that three employees violated its “touch” policy, the rules that dictate physical interactions with kids.

A police document reviewed by Military.com said that Graves called base police on Nov. 1 to see the footage. According to the document, in one instance a caretaker grabbed a child's toe hard enough for him to start crying and then placed him on a changing table and appeared to hold their hands over his nose and mouth for about 20 seconds.

In another incident, a caretaker grabbed a child by the arm; minutes later, she made him stand away from the other children who were singing a song. The boy was crying and still trying to participate, making hand motions that go along with the song from afar.

According to the Navy Child and Youth Programs Guidance and Touch Policy, "rejecting ... ignoring [and] isolating" children is prohibited.

When Military.com began reporting about the "touch violations" at China Lake in 2022, a Navy spokesperson stressed that, according to their policy, commonly known by the acronym CAPER, "Once touch policy violations are discovered, they must be substantiated." Substantiated violations are then reported internally to the Family Advocacy Program, or FAP, and, in the case of China Lake, outside the military to California's Child Protective Services, or CPS.

However, Jana Slagle, an official with Kern County, the municipality where China Lake is located, told Military.com that CPS doesn't handle those cases.

"CPS has jurisdiction over any kind of abuse that might happen from a parent in a home setting," she said, before adding that "if something criminal happened in a day care, like sexual abuse or physical abuse -- which those are considered criminal -- then law enforcement would also be involved in the day care."

Jason Montiel, a spokesman for California's Department of Social Services -- the agency that licenses day care facilities in the state -- also told Military.com in an email that "child day care facilities located on military facilities are subject to regulatory oversight by the Department of Defense" and not his agency.

Even Vaughan, China Lake's commander, seemed unsure of how the relationship with state officials is set up.

In a November email, more than a week after his child care center officials told some parents their children were victims of abuse at the hands of employees, Vaughan sent an email to a person whose name was redacted and asked:

"Question about DoD/Navy CDC relationship w/ the host state: What is the relationship w/ the

State of California? What State inspection cycle is typical for a civilian-run entity? What is our DoD/Navy equivalent?"

Graphic of blocks and toys
(Aaron Provost for Military.com)

When asked about this discrepancy in mandates, Navy officials said that all their child care professionals "are mandated reporters for incidents of suspected child maltreatment" and as such "are required by law to report known or suspected child abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS)." However, CPS doesn’t have clear jurisdiction with day cares on federal property.

Even once a "touch violation" is substantiated and reported, a Navy spokesperson said that the service's policy "does not dictate a timeline to inform parents," and the policy itself says that only a handful of officials are authorized to actually talk. Determining who will investigate can also become an issue.

Kate Kuykendall, Bella's mom, was told that, because the incidents with her daughter in Hawaii were "civilian on civilian," military investigators with the Criminal Investigation Division would wait until the Honolulu Police Department decided whether it wanted to take the case before they would move forward with an investigation.

In the initial report by base police, however, the responding officer indicated that the base's criminal investigation division -- not to be confused with the Army's similarly named entity -- had taken over the case from base law enforcement, supposedly in conjunction with civilian police.

Emails from base leadership to the Kuykendalls in September and onward would also later show that CID was ordered to start an investigation in the immediate aftermath of the alert, regardless of the Honolulu Police Department's own involvement.

In the January 2023 meeting with Macias, the family was told that, "Everyone was waiting for someone to be the investigator."

Navy officials said that the policy is that "within 24 hours of receiving a report of suspected abuse, FAP must notify NCIS [the Naval Criminal Investigative Service], who will review the reported incident and decide if a criminal investigation is warranted."

NCIS did not fully get involved until February, seven months after the abuse took place and after the Kuykendalls filed an inspector general report with the service's headquarters component in Washington, D.C., over the lack of NCIS presence.

Even when teachers or caretakers aren't directly accused of malfeasance, parents aren't being told quickly when troubling things happen to their kids.

Across the country from Hawaii in December 2023, a child at the day care for the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania was touched inappropriately, likely by another child. Military.com is withholding the names of the children involved.

The 4-year-old child was touched by another child numerous times on Dec. 5 and 6, 2023, according to a redacted copy of the CID investigation; the director of that day care was notified immediately but the parents weren't told until Dec. 7. The child exhibited some behavioral changes months earlier, and one of the parents believes it was related. Investigators did not review footage before the incidents in December. It's unclear whether a day care worker was in the room observing the children, as required, during the incidents.

Sexual behavior between children is not one of the incidents clearly prescribed in Army policy that day cares have to document and report to parents, as is mandated by law in most states. In the bulk of civilian jurisdictions, day cares are mandated to document and report all incidents to parents immediately, or by the end of the day.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in 2021 directed the service to bolster its regulations on day cares reporting incidents of sexual behavior to parents. Military.com asked the Army in January whether those policies were written and codified.

The service responded in April, only after being made aware of this story's publication, saying that policy had been finalized but was marked as Controlled Unclassified Information, or CUI.

While technically not a classification, CUI is meant to protect documents from being publicized easily -- including to parents, preventing them from knowing whether day cares their children attend adhere to service rules. Government transparency critics and lawmakers have argued that CUI is being stamped on many documents that do not contain material that is sensitive for national security purposes, but rather as a catchall to keep documents from being examined.

It's unclear why a policy on day care reporting standards would be concealed. The Army did not share the policy with Military.com.

Want to know what happened to your kids? That costs $15,000

In both the China Lake and Pearl Harbor cases, the parents of the injured children were initially told they would need to pay to have the videos of their incidents provided to them.

These videos are not only critical in giving parents evidence to pursue legal action but could offer important information about how to treat the children's injuries or trauma.

One Navy official warned a parent of a China Lake victim via email that "for every minute of video recording, it takes 4 hours of redaction work to blur the images" and noted that this could mean "40 hours of possible billable charges to you." Editing efforts would include removing footage that doesn't show the victims while also blurring faces external to those directly involved in each case.

Meanwhile, the Kuykendalls at Ford Island were told that, in order for them to get a copy of the footage, they would have to pay approximately $200 per editing hour. The total coverage between all of the cameras covering where Bella was abused would have accounted for about 75 hours -- meaning the Kuykendalls would have been on the hook for around $15,000.

For Bella, the delay in learning what happened could have lingering health consequences. Doctors have told the Kuykendalls that she may have suffered a concussion and she continues to have prolonged brain injury symptoms almost two years later, including sleep problems and headaches.

Neither the Kuykendalls nor the parent who spoke to Military.com from China Lake ultimately paid for the video from their respective incidents, although both waited months to receive the footage, even after FOIA requests were finally approved.

The Kuykendalls alleged that, while reviewing their daughter's footage, they noticed similar behavior toward another girl. But by the time the day care announced the abuse allegations in a letter sent home to parents, a little more than three months after the fact, it would have been too late for any other families to request footage from the same time, given the policy of keeping footage for only one month.

Meanwhile, the comprehensive review conducted at China Lake of 30 days of video turned up a staggering "132 unique policy violations relating to sanitation policy, food safety, accountability and supervision," according to the base spokeswoman in 2022.

In emails between the base commander and other base officials, whose names are redacted in the FOIA release, Vaughan is told that the "most common issues observed" were 42 instances of "teachers not appropriately supervising children," "24 instances of a "lack of handwashing," and 15 examples of "rough handling of children" that the email's author defines as "pulling, pushing, grabbing."

The justice and accountability sought by the family from China Lake that spoke to Military.com has been elusive.

According to documents provided by the family, despite initially being told by Graves -- the child care center director -- that their child was the victim of mishandling, an incident determination committee decided that was not the case.

They appealed that decision, but the Navy's Fleet and Family Readiness director at the Navy's Installation Command upheld that decision and, in a June 2023 letter to the family, noted that "my office will not take additional action on this case."

"The only thing we've ever wanted from the Navy is for them to admit, by the Navy's own definitions mandated by their policy, is that our son was abused," the parent said. "Then, I go through the whole process and then I'm told 'No, that's not abuse.'"

It's also not clear whether any employees of the China Lake child care center faced legal consequences or if the leaders running the centers are aware of those outcomes.

When Military.com asked Navy officials at the command that runs child care centers if they were aware of any criminal repercussions for any of the China Lake instructors accused of policy violations or arrested on child abuse charges, they directed the questions to NCIS or Kern County.

Military.com asked NCIS and the Kern County district attorney but did not receive a response before publication.

Since the Navy has not released any of the names of the accused instructors, it was impossible to conduct an independent court record search.

For the Kuykendalls, the damage to their family can't be summarized simply by what happened to Bella or whether the workers were ever held accountable. It includes the mental health issues that the couple have seen pop up after having to first witness and then continuously re-live the ordeal during their ongoing fight for accountability. It's seen in the way their eldest daughter, Sophia, has coped with the chaos in her own quiet, independent way, her parents said.

Kuykendall said he no longer fully trusts the military to have his or his family's backs.

"When institutions have already started narratives, it seems very apparent, at least in this case, that no one will even bother to check whether or not there's a failure," he said. "Even if someone's screaming, like 'the ship is sinking' and you're yelling, and putting the alarms on...people will just continue on."

A chalk drawing on the steps made by Kuykendalls' daughters
A chalk drawing on the steps from their daughters Bella, 2, and Sophia, 5, outside the Kuykendalls’ Fort Leavenworth home, April 7, 2024. (Chase Castor/ Military.com)

Editor’s note: Hours after the publication of this story, Major Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told Military.com in an email that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness had asked the Defense Department’s Inspector General to review the issues raised by this investigation. Ryder promised that the office will “also work together with the Military Departments to ensure CDC facilities and staff meet the highest standards of care for our children and to promote appropriate accountability.” Read more on the fallout from this investigation here.

Related: Army Investigating War College Child Care Center After Repeated Incidents of Inappropriate Touching

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