Talia Williams, left, was killed in 2005 at the age of 5 by her father, Naeem Williams, right, then an active-duty infantryman stationed in Hawaii. (Helene L. Allen / U.S. Army; Inform)
In September 2011, Army Sgt. 1st Class Crispen Hanson’s commander at Ft. Bliss ordered him into a military treatment program for child abusers.
Texas child welfare authorities had formally reported a “reason to believe” the 20-year Army veteran had severely beaten his 6-month-old son, Malachi, leaving him with a broken leg.
For the next four months, Hanson met weekly with a therapist from the Family Advocacy Program, a $200-million-a-year Pentagon program known as FAP that seeks to prevent child abuse in the ranks.
When Hanson completed the therapy, FAP officials closed the case and a state judge allowed him to see his infant son.
But three months later, on April 9, 2012, El Paso paramedics called to Hanson’s house found Malachi dead. An autopsy found “blunt force injuries” and “innumerable contusions of the head, torso and extremities.”
The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Last year, Hanson pleaded guilty to two counts of injuring a child after prosecutors agreed to drop murder charges. A state judge sentenced him to probation. The Army gave him an honorable discharge and a full pension of about $28,000 a year.
Army officials said the decision to close the FAP case before the infant’s death was appropriate. “No program has a 100% guarantee of success when dealing with individuals,” said William Costlow, an Army spokesman.
The Pentagon has struggled to deal with a little-noticed cascade of child abuse and neglect cases in military families in the years since America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Times investigation has found.
Previously unreleased reports by the Army, Navy and Air Force reveal numerous cases where military officials knew or suspected that child abuse or neglect was occurring — but failed to intervene or to alert the Family Advocacy Program or state child welfare agencies, The Times found.
In many cases, the reports blamed military personnel for failing to report cases of abuse and neglect to FAP officials.
FAP “is not accessing those most in need due to … failure on the part of others to report concerns or maltreatment incidents,” warned an internal 2014 report on 27 deaths in Army families.
“In several cases, command was aware of ongoing abuse but failed to report it,” it added.
A 2014 report on 50 deaths in Air Force families over five years reached a similar conclusion.
“In numerous cases … Air Force employees and other individuals were aware of suspected child maltreatment or domestic abuse and did not report it to FAP or any other authority,” it said.
Citing privacy restrictions, Pentagon officials redacted parts of each report, which were released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. The Times was able to identify many victims and their abusers by comparing the reports with court records and other legal documents.
Even senior FAP officials concede they are able to help only a fraction of the children who suffer abuse.
“We get about 25% of the incidents,” said Rene Robichaux, who oversees an Army-wide clinical child abuse treatment program from the Army Medical Command in San Antonio. “The rest occur behind closed doors.”
There's a real reluctance to address child abuse fatalities in the military because it's a career-ender for soldiers.
— Theresa Covington, head of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths
America’s longest wars already have been associated with poor mental health in military families, behavioral problems in children, a higher risk of divorce, and higher rates of suicide, studies show.
Experts now add child abuse to that tragic list.
“We have a relatively high rate of child maltreatment,” said Dr. Sharon Cooper, a pediatrician and retired Army colonel who treats child abuse victims at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. “And we know that child abuse and neglect is highly influenced by deployment.”
Child fatalities have soared even as the armed forces have shrunk by 10% in recent years.
Fatalities more than doubled from 14 in 2003 to 38 in 2012. They remained above 30 a year through 2014 before dropping to 23 in 2015, the last year that Pentagon records are available. Overall, FAP counted 5,378 child abuse and neglect victims in military families in 2015.
The Pentagon long has claimed that child abuse is less severe in the military than in the civilian population. The military weeds out alcohol and drug users with random tests and annual fitness reports, and the mental strain of unemployment isn’t a problem.
Moreover, base commanders are supposed to monitor their troops’ daily lives and the welfare of their families. They can order FAP to counsel parents and even temporarily bar service members from contact with their families in abuse cases.
Military bases also are required to cooperate closely with state child welfare agencies, which share responsibility for protecting children in military families living on and off U.S. installations.
But in the last five years, the rate of child abuse and neglect in the military has gone up sharply — from 4.8 incidents per 1,000 children to 7.2 incidents, according to Pentagon records. Civilian rates vary depending on how they’re counted, but generally are higher.
The failure of base commanders to intervene has sparked special concern among child welfare advocates.
Experts say those failures may occur because a criminal charge of child abuse can lead to a soldier’s discharge — costing the family its livelihood — and also can be seen as a blot on a commander’s record.
“There's a real reluctance to address child abuse fatalities in the military because it's a career-ender for soldiers,” said Theresa Covington, head of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, a nonprofit group in Washington that works closely with the Pentagon.
Underlying the problems is the belief at senior levels of the Pentagon that the military can handle family violence by ordering an accused abuser into FAP counseling, experts say.
“Ultimately an allegation of abuse is plopped down on the desk of some commander, who is supposed to take action, as if ... you can discipline somebody who is abusing their children and make them stop, which is absurd,” said Mark Davis, an attorney involved in a decadelong lawsuit against the Army over the abuse death of 5-year-old girl on a military base in Hawaii.
Created after the Vietnam War, FAP now has more than 2,000 case workers and administrators. They offer help to 1.2 million active-duty couples and 1.1 million children at almost every U.S. military base, including in Germany, Japan and other overseas posts where families are allowed.
In the most violent cases, FAP officials can seek a protective order from the military that bars an abusive parent from contact with a child, or ask a civilian court to place a battered child in foster care.
FAP and Pentagon officials say the program provides valuable counseling, parenting classes, home visits and other help to thousands of military families, many of them young parents living on their own for the first time.
“The welfare of our service members and their family members warrants the highest priority in the Department of Defense,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Benjamin E. Sakrisson. “The department is actively committed to keeping children safe and healthy.”
The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all have boosted training and staffing at their FAP operations over the last decade, officials say.
FAP staffing at Army bases, for instance, has grown from 136 to 390, with many new hires assigned to visit homes of new parents to teach parenting techniques.
But some FAP offices are overwhelmed, especially after units deployed overseas return home.
At Ft. Bragg, the nation’s largest Army base, soldiers often wait weeks to see a FAP therapist for routine counseling, said Anne Malena, a civilian social worker in private practice who mostly works with Ft. Bragg families.
“They’re extremely overworked, and they’re working on crisis situations most of the time,” she said.
FAP officials contend it is unfair to blame their staff for failing to foresee which military parents will abuse their children when warning signs often are fragmentary or ambiguous.
“Predicting these kinds of events is an extremely difficult thing to do,” said Dr. Terri Rau, a psychiatrist and senior policy analyst for the Navy’s Fleet and Family Support Programs in Norfolk, Va., which oversees FAP.
Yet in some cases, there were clear warning signs.
In August 2012, for example, Tamryn Klapheke starved to death in her crib at her parents’ house on Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. She was 22 months old.
State prosecutors said her mother, Tiffany Klapheke, had left the infant without food or water for four days while her husband, an Air Force enlisted man, was overseas. Her two other children were also badly malnourished.
Both the base FAP office and Texas’ Child Protective Services, the state agency responsible for investigating child abuse, had been repeatedly warned of neglect at the house.
Air Force doctors had notified both offices in 2010 and 2011 that the older children were underweight and had missed medical appointments.
“The consequences of not feeding the child could be fatal,” Edward Wilcock, the FAP social worker assigned to Tamryn’s case, wrote in her file in September 2011.
But FAP closed its case three months later when Klapheke completed her assigned doctor visits and Tamryn had gained a little weight, records show.
Child Protective Services in Taylor County, where Dyess is located, closed its own investigation a week before Tamryn starved to death. Its last face-to-face contact with the family was 10 months earlier, courts records show.
Klapheke, 23, was convicted of injury to a child and sentenced in state court to 30 years in prison. Four employees from Child Protective Services resigned over misconduct in the case. The two older children were placed with a foster family.
Wilcock, who remains employed by FAP at Dyess, declined to comment for this story.
Capt. Nicole Ferrara, a base spokeswoman, said the Air Force investigated whether “various personnel met their required duty obligations,” and said “appropriate action was taken to address the findings.” She declined to disclose the findings or the action taken.
FAP also failed Kylee Houston, who lived her entire brief life inside the secure gates of Naval Air Station New Orleans.
Just 14 weeks old, the malnourished infant died in a soiled crib at her home on March 15, 2015. An autopsy blamed accidental suffocation.
Kylee’s twin sister and four siblings, all under age 5, also suffered from extreme neglect, police found.
State prosecutors put them all in foster care and arrested the parents on charges of cruelty to juveniles and second-degree murder.
The father, Navy Seaman Xavier Houston, pleaded guilty in January to cruelty to juveniles and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. His wife, Calendria, is awaiting trial.
FAP was well aware of the danger.
On July 1, 2014, neighbors called the military police when they heard the parents fighting, a frequent occurrence. The police report noted that one child was filthy and the house reeked of dirty diapers.
The police shared the report with the base Fleet and Family Support Center, which oversees the FAP office. But the office didn’t inform Louisiana’s child welfare agency, as an agreement between the base and the state required.
A month later, on Aug. 5, Calendria Houston complained to base authorities that her husband had “left their four children, ranging in age from 3 years old to 5 months old, unattended at their residence,” according to a Navy investigation.
At his commander’s urging, Xavier Houston had met a FAP counselor “a handful of times” to discuss his strained marriage, but not the welfare of his children, according to Houston’s attorney, Clarke Beljean.
That failure angers Charles J. Ballay, the district attorney in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish who is prosecuting the parents.
The military was “aware or should have been aware” that the Houstons were neglecting their children, Ballay said. “Somebody should have taken action to save the life of this young child.”
The Navy appears to agree.
Mike Andrews, a Navy spokesman, said “several” contractors involved in the Houston case resigned after Kylee’s death. He declined to identify them or say if they quit in response to pending disciplinary action.
Military police on the base were instructed for the first time to notify Louisiana’s child protection agency in cases “involving child welfare of any kind,” Andrews said.
FAP has come under fire before.
In the early 1980s, about a decade after the Army, Navy and Air Force each developed programs for treating domestic violence on military installations, an investigation by federal auditors found the efforts were poorly funded, understaffed and often inadequate.
Congress provided additional money in response and ordered the Pentagon to keep better track of personnel accused of abuse. After cases continued to increase, Congress in 2001 created an independent task force to evaluate the military’s efforts.
The panel issued 193 recommendations, including a call for the Pentagon to hire hundreds of “victim advocates” on military bases to help abused children and spouses, whom panel members felt often received short shrift from FAP.
The task force delivered its report to Congress on the same day in March 2003 that U.S. forces invaded Iraq. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing, distracted lawmakers ducked into side rooms to watch the invasion on TV. The Pentagon ultimately adopted many of the changes the panel proposed.
In 2011, Jessica Wright, then undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, ordered another “top-level rapid review” of FAP. It produced 84 “preliminary ideas” for improvements.
It also led to creation of an Integrated Project Team to recommend ways to “help families in need and at risk as early as possible,” said Sakrisson, the Pentagon spokesman.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a major in the Army National Guard, is one of the few lawmakers to focus on the issue.
Congress this month passed a national defense authorization bill that includes a provision Gabbard introduced that requires military personnel to immediately report suspected cases of child abuse to FAP and to state child protection agencies.
Yet even when the military and civilian agencies cooperate, victims go undetected.
In November 2011, for example, Laquita Lewis told police that her boyfriend, Jerrell Edwards, had punched and nearly strangled her after she complained he was driving too fast. Both sailors were stationed at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
Since her son Jaiden, who was 2 1/2, was in the vehicle and she was pregnant with Edwards’ child, the FAP office opened an investigation into “child neglect and domestic physical abuse,” records show.
Navy commanders ordered the couple to break off contact for a month.
But the base “incident determination committee” — a panel that includes senior officers, FAP officials, military police, hospital personnel and others who see abuse cases — voted to close the case three months later, ruling that Edwards’ behavior “did not meet criteria for abuse,” records show.
Virginia Child Protective Services, which had opened a separate investigation, closed its case after social workers made a single visit to Lewis’ apartment.
Edwards, who broke up with Lewis, was discharged from the Navy for using marijuana. But she let him move in after their baby was born.
In April 2012, Lewis found Edwards trying to revive Jaiden at the apartment. The toddler was unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, according to Navy documents.
Jaiden died at the hospital hours later, and an autopsy revealed a “ruptured stomach, lacerated liver and bruising to his colon,” as well as an apparent cigarette burn on his foot, the records show.
The incident determination committee reexamined the evidence. This time they concluded that Edwards had repeatedly subjected Jaiden to “severe physical abuse,” case records show.
Edwards was convicted in May 2014 in state court of murder and child abuse and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“I thought I was doing the right thing by letting him spend time with his new child,” Lewis said in a telephone interview. “It’s a decision I live with every day. But I can’t help feel that the Navy failed me and Jaiden in some way.”
I can’t help feel that the Navy failed me and Jaiden in some way.
— Laquita Lewis
No case better highlighted the military’s failure to protect children than the brutal death of 5-year-old Talia Williams. The tragedy inspired Gabbard, the Hawaii lawmaker hoping to reform FAP, to call her legislation “Talia’s Law.”
“This young girl was abused for months and not removed from the abuse, even though she was living in military housing and the military has mandatory reporting,” said Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard. The procedures “failed Talia and they have failed many, many other children in military families.”
Talia was killed in July 2005 after months of near-daily beatings by her stepmother, Delilah Williams, and her father, Spc. Naeem Williams, a soldier at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii.
At one point, military police took Talia to a base medical clinic after her day-care center reported bruises on her arms and back.
Talia told the staff that her father hit her with “Mr. Paddle” when he got angry, according to court testimony. But she was returned to her parents.
One of her stepmother’s co-workers later went directly to FAP to report her concerns that Talia was being abused. She recounted overhearing Williams say it was “OK to whip a child, just don’t leave any marks,” according to court records.
Hilda Borja, the FAP official who received the complaint, took no action, according to Army and court records.
An Army investigation later found Borja was “negligent in her duty to report suspected child abuse.” The report cited “a series of missed opportunities” by authorities that could have prevented Talia’s death.
Borja resigned before the Army finished its disciplinary proceedings, officials said. In a brief phone interview, she said “the truth is I had nothing to do with that family.”
Spc. Williams was sentenced last year to life in federal prison for murder. His wife was sentenced to 20 years in prison after she testified against him.
But the case had an unusual postscript.
In 2008, Tarshia Williams, Talia’s biological mother, sued the Army in federal court for negligence and wrongful death.
Justice Department lawyers argued that the Army could not be held liable for child abuse on military bases. Protecting battered children, even on a base, was the job of Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, not the Army, the government lawyers argued.
“The Army has no legal framework for taking custody or otherwise acting formally to protect abused children, and therefore explicitly relies on” state child protection agencies, the Justice Department claimed in court documents.
U.S. District Judge Alan C. Kay rejected the government’s motion to dismiss the case. The Justice Department settled with Talia’s mother last year for $2 million.
The short, sad life of Rylan Ott
Police responding to gunfire at a mobile home near Ft. Bragg one night found a soldier in full military gear, waving an AR-15 assault rifle and trying to get a child to snort a powerful prescription tranquilizer.
Spc. Devin Havis and Samantha Bryant, his girlfriend, were abusing Klonopin and urging Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Brittany, “to engage in this drug use,” according to a police report from the October 2015 incident.
Officers found the girl hiding in a closet with her 17-month-old half-brother Rylan.
Police charged Havis and Bryant with child abuse and “fighting with firearms in the presence of minors.” Bryant was committed to a local hospital’s mental health ward for three days. The two children were placed in foster care at Ft. Bragg for their protection while military and civilian agencies investigated.But America’s largest Army base — a heavily guarded enclave that is home to 238,000 soldiers and civilians — proved no refuge.
On April 14, four months after a state judge returned the two children to their mother, Rylan drowned in a pond near the mobile home.
Bryant was charged with involuntary manslaughter and child neglect and is in Moore County jail awaiting trial. Havis — who was not prosecuted on the earlier charges — was kicked out of the Army with a general discharge, one level below an honorable discharge.
Rylan’s death was one of at least five child fatalities or severe abuse and neglect cases at Ft. Bragg over the last 14 months.
Ft. Bragg officials declined to discuss the five cases, citing legal proceedings. But it’s clear, from court records and interviews, that the system failed toddler Rylan Ott.
His father, Spc. Corey Ott, had married Samantha Bryant in 2014, and their relationship was volatile.
“She liked to drink and party, and so did I, but when she drank, she got crazy,” Ott said in an interview.
She liked to drink and party, and so did I, but when she drank, she got crazy.
— Spc. Corey Ott
They lived in a cramped apartment on Ft. Bragg after Rylan was born, and then moved to an on-base house. Bryant’s daughter, Brittany, came from Texas to live with them.
But after Ott began an eight-month deployment to the United Arab Emirates, Bryant moved to a mobile home off base with the two children. She also began seeing Havis, a military policeman.
“She got my boy and my truck and just took off,” Ott said. “I felt like I was losing my family.”
When Ott returned in September 2015, Bryant refused to rejoin him. She showed him a new AR-15 rifle with a high-powered sight, saying she had bought it herself. Ott didn’t believe her, convinced that the weapon was proof she was seeing another soldier.
Bryant and Havis were arrested three weeks later for firing the AR-15 and sniffing Klonopin, an anti-seizure medication that is often abused, around her children.
Sgt. Shane Mills and his wife, Amanda, whose daughters attended school with Brittany, agreed to act as foster parents while the Moore County child protective services agency investigated the case.
Rylan was “real quiet” and very thin when he arrived on Nov. 2, Amanda Mills recalled. After a month, he had become a “sweet, smiling, laughing” little boy, she said.
The toddler’s mother was allowed to visit three times a week. But Bryant was so disruptive that the Mills asked authorities to halt the visits. After that, social workers drove the children to offices 25 miles away so Bryant could see them in supervised visits.
On Dec. 17, 2015, after a daylong hearing, North Carolina District Judge Scott C. Etheridge ordered Rylan and Brittany returned to their mother. He cited a state law that calls for courts to seek family reunification whenever possible.
The Moore County social services department backed the ruling, noting that Bryant had finished a class on parenting.
The judge rebuffed pleas from the foster parents and from Pamela Reed, a court-appointed social worker who had urged him not to send the children back to their mother.
The judge also rejected Ott’s request for custody, ruling he hadn’t spent enough time with the boy — mostly due to his long overseas deployment — to be a good father.
“I left that courthouse in tears,” recalled Ott, who quit the Army the next day.
When child protection workers arrived to take Rylan and Brittany to their mother, Shane and Amanda Mills also broke into tears, fearing for the children’s safety, they said.
“When this thing goes south — not if, but when — you call me, day or night,” Shane Mills said he told the social workers. “I will be there to pick up these children.”
The Mills never got a call. They learned Rylan had drowned when Brittany posted a photo on Instagram last April of the smiling toddler in her lap.
“RIP. This little boy is my little brother and he was really a blessing,” she wrote. “I love you Rylan Ott … but [you’re] with God now.”