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PHOTO CAPTION:  Abby Taylor applies icing to her homemade cupcakes during a culinary arts class at the Netzaberg School-Age Center in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on March 22, 2011.  /U.S. Army

September 20, 2013
By Jennifer H. Svan
©  Stars and Stripes

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Several U.S. Army garrisons in Europe are temporarily suspending some youth activities until they can ensure that all paid employees and volunteers hired to work with children have complete background checks on file.

Recent Army-directed audits of personnel records conducted by the garrisons revealed incomplete background checks, due to missing paperwork or other discrepancies, officials said Friday.

Background checks are supposed to be completed before an employee or volunteer is hired. It’s not clear whether the background checks weren’t done properly or whether the delay is being caused by new Army background check procedures. For some programs, background checks are being completely redone.

The stoppage in services affects mostly religious service programs, which typically rely on volunteers, but it’s also affecting a number of instructional activities like dance, gymnastics and martial arts at Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels in southern Germany.

“This is an across-the-board audit of all services that deal with children,” said Troy Darr, a spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe. “Commanders are still doing the audit. Garrisons are taking extra steps to ensure the safety of children in the community.”

The tighter scrutiny of personnel records was prompted by revelations late last year that at least 31 people were suspended from two Army day care centers at Fort Myer, Va., after officials scrutinized their backgrounds and found a range of criminal convictions. The background checks were ordered after two day care workers were arrested in the fall on multiple counts of assault on children at one of the centers.

In December, the Defense Department ordered a review of background checks on all employees who have contact with children in department programs. About the same time, the Army announced its own investigation into personnel procedures at its child development centers.

At Grafenwöher and Hohenfels, culinary arts, karate, ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics and taekwondo classes offered through Schools of Knowledge, Inspiration, Exploration & Skills (SKIES) programs are temporarily stopped.

“The Bavaria Military Community is facing severe challenges brought about by implementation of a new Army-wide policy used in checking the backgrounds of people – volunteers and paid employees – who work in any program, office or organization involving children,” a message posted Wednesday on Grafenwöhr’s official website reads. “In some cases the approval process has taken several months and led to delays in much-needed support. The impact of the new procedure is being felt across the entire Army, including places, such as here, where there have been no incidents in garrison child/youth services.”

Army officials in Europe on Friday could not say what the new procedures entail.

“These are routine checks, the same sort of checks that we have always done. The audit is to make sure it’s done properly,” Darr said.

In Kaiserslautern, religious service programs across denominations are affected, including Daenner Catholic Religious Education Youth Services and Childcare Services, Seventh Day Adventists Religious Education Youth and child care services and Sabbath school at Miesau, to name two.

The same goes for Vicenza, Italy, where most youth religious programs have been disrupted, including Club Beyond, Crossroads and AWANA Sunday school and children’s church, according to the garrison’s Facebook page.

Mark Heeter, a spokesman for U.S. Army Garrison-Kaiserslautern, said over the last six months, “there have been some administrative changes to the way the Army wants us to do background checks.”

A garrison-led team conducted the audit over the last two weeks, he said.

At garrison chapels, records of 42 volunteers were examined; 13 had incomplete background checks, Heeter said. “It could be a letter of reference, maybe a volunteer just did not return all of the paperwork.”

“We have to validate every item, every piece of paper,” Heeter said. “It’s extraordinarily time-consuming, but an extraordinarily important mission to make sure we get it right.”

The garrison is “doing everything we can to get these background checks speedily completed,” he said.