NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A bill introduced in the General Assembly by two local legislators would strengthen protections and resources available to abused or neglected children living in military families.
Its chief aim is to open up lines of communication between civilian investigators of such abuse and the military supervisors of the child’s parent or guardian.
The measure will put into law a practice already in place at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. In cases of suspected abuse or neglect, the DCYF determines the military status of the parents of any abused child or children and reports the matter to the appropriate military authorities, including the Military Family Advocacy Program.
State Sen. Alana DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) introduced the bill, which passed in the Senate this week.
DiMario worked with Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter), who introduced a similar measure that passed in the House of Representatives.
“We have more than 2,200 children of active duty military personnel in Rhode Island, and over 2,700 children of National Guard and Reserve members,” DiMario said. “This bill would codify into law a process that has already begun happening through a memorandum of understanding between DCYF and the military community.”
In that process, DCYF investigators ascertain the military status of the caregiver of a suspected child victim, and then “loop in” the Family Advocacy Program, which was established by the Department of Defense to address domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, and problematic sexual behavior in children and youth.
“The Family Advocacy Program can help to make sure if the family is experiencing a difficult time that appropriate modifications are made,” DiMario said, offering the example that if a person was under investigation for suspected abuse or neglect, “you wouldn’t want that person deployed. It is important that that person be able to stay and be held accountable.”
The program is delivered through military services who work in coordination with civilian agencies to prevent abuse, encourage early identification and prompt reporting, promote victim safety and empowerment, and provide appropriate treatment for affected service members and their families.
DiMario has worked alongside Casimiro on several pieces of legislation that safeguard children and provide resources for families.
Casimiro said military communities aren’t immune to cases of child abuse.
“Child abuse can and does occur within every aspect of our society and sadly, our military is not an exception to this troubling fact,” she said. “This bill will ensure that child abusers, even if they are in the military, will be held accountable for their crimes against children and it will make sure that these kids receive the help and support they need after experiencing abuse and trauma.”
The best outcome for children that are victims of trauma is for the parents and caregivers to be as well-supported as possible to help the child through it.
“By connecting these two systems, it adds that layer of support and stability that will ultimately be able to help that child to get through that situation,” DiMario said.
Both legislators noted that they represent communities with military families, many of which live here because of the proximity to the National Guard air base at Quonset point and other Navy facilities in Newport and in Groton, Connecticut.
DiMario, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, said she had worked with a representative from the U.S. Dept. of Defense on bills that would benefit military families, and that this bill was a priority for the past two years.
“This is another step in making sure that children who are victims of abuse and their families have all the support that is available in the systems that surround them as well as assuring accountability of perpetrators,” DiMario said.
While having such a law on the books aids investigators, its ultimate benefit will be for families, DiMario said.
“When something has happened to your child, you don’t know all the resources that are available to you,” she said. “This way, doing it from the start of the investigation and having it as a best practice provides an extra layer of protection.”