The Defense Department wants to bring distressed military families into its network of social services, and it’s asking the Legislature for help.
Pentagon officials are working with state lawmakers to advance two bills that would require state agencies to notify the armed forces whenever they encounter a suspected case of child abuse involving a military family.
For the most part, that already happens when the state Department of Social and Health Services considers placing a military child in protective custody, according to officials from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The idea is to standardize routines so civilian agencies know whom to call at Washington’s Army, Air Force and Navy bases.
“Let’s put it in state law and have a clear, definitive reporting process,” said Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is sponsoring one of the bills. “This helps streamline things and makes sure that none of these cases falls through the cracks.”
Supporters of the bills say they’re not responding to any particular domestic violence or child abuse trends or lapses in information sharing.
“It’s more about reaching out to help the families, and obviously if you’re talking about Madigan (Army Medical Center), you have first-class medical and rehabilitative counseling,” said Mark San Souci, the Defense Department’s legislative liaison to Washington and five other states.
The military has been paying more attention to child abuse and domestic violence as stress in the ranks grew during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2007, an Army-funded study by RTI International found incidents of child abuse and neglect significantly increase when a parent deploys to a war zone. In 2013, an Army Times investigation revealed a 40 percent increase in reports of child abuse or neglect in Army families between 2009 and 2012.
After the Army Times investigation, the Defense Department formed a working group of experts to study child abuse and domestic violence.
It issued several internal reports and recommendations now under consideration by a team of senior military leaders, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen. Policy changes from the child abuse and domestic violence panels are expected to be implemented over the next two years.
“The health and well-being of our military children is paramount. We are continually strengthening awareness and prevention efforts to protect children and apply resources to prevent incidents of child abuse, neglect and domestic abuse,” Christensen said.
Last year, 538 military families in Washington were screened during child protective services investigations, according to DSHS. Another 112 military families had other assessments by the state’s Children’s Administration intended to help keep at-risk kids in their homes.
Washington has one of the country’s largest military populations, with about 60,000 active-duty military personnel and more than 19,000 reservists. Another 88,000 people are considered dependents of active-duty families, including 55,000 children, according to the Defense Department’s 2013 military demographics report.
Military service members and their dependents can benefit from a range of family assistance programs on military installations, such as classes for first-time parents, low-cost child care and counseling services for military family members.
When a case of suspected abuse is serious enough to trigger a criminal investigation, military police work with their civilian counterparts to determine whether charges should be filed in military courts or county courts. About two-thirds of active-duty military families live in civilian communities, and dependents of troops cannot be charged in military courts.
JBLM spokesman Joe Kubistek said the local military installation has informal but well-maintained relationships with local police departments and courts. He said there’s already a “crossflow of information in these relationships,” and the bills in Olympia would merely formalize what is already happening.
The proposals, HB1150 and SB5079, are moving quickly through the Legislature. Each has already passed one committee and is headed to a second before an expected floor vote. With the Pentagon’s backing, the proposals have been an easy sell.
“I think the military wants mainly to help children,” Muri said. “If intervention is necessary, whatever training or counseling is needed, they want to be able to be on top of it.”