Suspected cases of child abuse on military bases must now be reported to state child welfare officials under a new federal law that was championed by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.
The measure, known as Talia's Law, named for a young girl who was beaten to death by her father at Wheeler Army Airfield in Wahiawa, was signed into law by President Barack Obama last week as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Talia Williams was just 5 years old when her father punched her in the chest so hard that she fell backward, hitting her head on the concrete floor of the family's military quarters and dying. She had suffered months of abuse by her father and stepmother, who are imprisoned for her murder. Williams' father is serving a life sentence after escaping the death penalty.
Until now the military has dealt with cases of child abuse internally. Under Talia's Law physicians, social workers, teachers and other professionals who serve military personnel and their families are required to also report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect directly to state Child Protective Services or its equivalent agency within a state.
Supporters of the measure hope that it will give an added layer of protection to children who are being abused on military bases.
"We are absolutely thrilled that this horrible tragedy that befell this little girl is ultimately going to result in a fix that may save hundreds and hundreds of kids who are at risk of abuse within the military," said Honolulu attorney Mark Davis, who represented Talia Williams' biological mother, Tarshia Hampton, in a civil case against the U.S. government, winning a $2 million settlement.
"When the obligation is to report to the chain of command, the whole outlook is to treat the abuser as if it is a disciplinary problem that can be reported, whereas in the state system the whole emphasis is on protecting the child," he said.
In the Army alone, beatings, torture and starvation caused the death of 118 children between 2003 and 2012, according to an investigation by Military Times published in 2013. Overall, nearly 30,000 children had suffered from some type of abuse or neglect.
The rate of child abuse in the Army was 4.5 cases per 1,000 children for 2011, compared with a civilian rate of 27.4 cases per 1,000 children. However, the investigation found that Army cases had spiked 28 percent between 2008 and 2011.
The final punch that Naeem Williams delivered to his daughter left knuckle imprints in her chest, according to Davis. At trial the girl's stepmother testified that Talia Williams had been denied food for days at a time, duct-taped to a bed and whipped. Her father admitted that she had been abused daily, much of it over her problems with potty training.
Gabbard introduced Talia's Law, which was unanimously by passed the House of Representatives in February. In the Senate, Hirono included it as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
"Until now, the same gaps in the military's reporting requirements that failed to protect Talia and so many other military children remained," Gabbard said in a news release. "Enactment of Talia's Law closes these gaps by requiring the same protections that exist for any other child to also protect children in military families."
While Gabbard was a champion of Talia's Law, she voted against the National Defense Authorization Act, which easily made it through both the Senate and House. Gabbard opposed the act, in part, because she said it would worsen the war in Syria, which she opposes.
Hirono also said that the law would help close gaps in protections for children of military personnel.