Rosemary Freitas Williams, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy
No one likes to think of our military children as being at risk. But our military community is no different than the rest of the nation: child abuse and neglect is a sad reality.
Having said that, child abuse and neglect are preventable, and it is best done through a team approach on the local, state and national level. Seventy percent of our married military family population lives “outside the gate” – which means even closer collaboration with our state partners.
For the first time ever, two states recently passed legislation that supports the safety of military children and their families. On June 4, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed the first bill for military child advocacy into law, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a similar bill into law six days later.
This unprecedented news, delivered by our office’s State Liaison Education Opportunities team, will help ensure that our military children will be better protected and military parents better supported.
Here’s how the hard work and perseverance of SLEO and its partnership with these two states has paid off, and what it means for our military community.
The two state bills will each require their local child protective services to identify child welfare and neglect incidents involving active duty military families and share this information with the appropriate military authorities as soon as possible. By sharing this information early in the intervention, the full complement of state and military resources will directly impact:
- the welfare of military children,
- the accountability of those maltreating children, and
- the support to the parents and guardians of affected children.
This is a win-win for the state and military child welfare systems and the military families we serve.
This is just the beginning.
South Carolina and Washington have now set a precedent that we hope other states will follow in placing language in their state statutes that complements the Department of Defense requirement to report all suspicions of child maltreatment to the state’s child welfare agency. Because states have the responsibility and authority to address child welfare regarding all children residing in their state, DoD depends on collaborating with state and local governments to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to address child abuse and neglect.
Family violence, domestic abuse and child welfare and neglect – also known as Family Advocacy – is not a new issue but it is one that has our undivided attention.
Two years ago we resolved to get out in front of this problem, and launched a formal, proactive review of child abuse and neglect and domestic abuse with a focus on prevention. This “priority rapid review” of how we prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect and domestic abuse within DoD included representatives who are subject-matter experts from every group that has a role in preventing or intervening in cases of child abuse or neglect, including command, medical, legal, law enforcement, chaplains, family advocacy programs, family members, Reserve Affairs, Department of Defense Education Activity, child and youth programs, and family programs within the military services and DoD. Over the course of four days, these experts spent long hours discussing, arguing, collaborating and identifying critical touch-points and essential actions to improve prevention of all family violence.
Last April, after months of dedicated staff work, the first batch of recommendations were presented to a senior level Integrated Process Team made up of senior representations from that same group. As a group, we quickly discussed and approved more than 24 recommendations developed by the subject-matter experts. Now the nose-to-the-grindstone work of identifying where those recommendations will have the best impact through policy and/or process changes begins.
It’s worth repeating – child abuse and neglect is preventable.
Abuse and neglect have absolutely no place in our military services, and we are 100 percent committed to helping provide a safe environment for all our service members, civilians, and their families. But let’s be honest – we have no reason to think our rates will trend down without our new focus on being proactive about prevention.
In fact, after 13 years of war, involuntary separations, and continued high “OpTempo” for the troops who remain and emerging new missions, the stress on our military families is in many ways greater than ever. The reality is that we live in an uncertain world and our military stands ready to respond. We must continue to strengthen awareness and prevention efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of our military community, our children.
Like many of you, I see a lot of emails every day and some really stand out. A recent email from Mark, our Northwest Region Defense State Liaison, after Washington state signed the bill is one of them: “Two down and 48 more to go!”
I look forward to sharing more as additional states join this important initiative. In the meantime, check out the status of family and child advocacy and a host of other key state initiatives that serve our military community at USA4Military Families.
Note: If you suspect child maltreatment or neglect you can report your concern to the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453 or your installation Family Advocacy Program.
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