At least 18 children have fallen from windows in military housing in Navy and Marine Corps privatized housing since 2017
By Joshua Schneyer
April 29 (Reuters) - Last April, Kate Needham's one-year-old son Robbie pushed through a screen and plunged from a second story window in the family's rental home near Naval Base San Diego.
Robbie landed head first on the ground, suffering a life-threatening head injury that required a $30,000 hospital stay. On a warm day, Needham and her Navy-enlisted husband had cracked open a window in the home that they, as do thousands of American military families, rent from a privatized U.S. military housing operator. With one light press on the screen, she said, the toddler fell through.
Soon after, Needham said, employees of military housing landlord Lincoln Military Housing visited to take photos and asked her to reenact the circumstances of the fall. During a phone call Lincoln employees recorded with her, Needham said, she felt pressure to take the blame for Robbie's injury, and she promised not to sue the company.
"They completely took advantage of my vulnerable state to cover themselves," Needham said.
Lincoln Military Housing, one of the U.S. military's top housing providers, said it couldn't discuss specific incidents, citing privacy concerns. Its standard practice is to "visit and inspect a home after any incident that involves a window fall," to ensure it can immediately address any issues. The company's chief executive told Reuters it is enhancing window safety across its military homes.
Robbie's fall was not an isolated incident. It was one in a series of life-threatening window falls that have raised alarm in the Navy and have begun spurring hard questions from members of Congress.
Children's window falls are also a common concern in civilian communities, accounting for about a dozen deaths and thousands of injuries annually in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But such accidents have drawn special alarm in the military community.
Since 2017, at least 18 children have been injured from window falls in Navy and Marine Corps privatized housing, including at least seven last year, according to Navy data obtained by Reuters through the Freedom of Information Act.
Lincoln isn't the only military landlord to have window fall incidents. Two children were injured in Army housing with other landlords in 2019, and one at an Air Force base in 2018, military records show. Some of the Navy falls involved other landlords, as well.
Last June, two months after Robbie fell, the Navy issued a letter to its private housing partners urging them to undertake immediate window safety upgrades. The letter, obtained by Reuters, expressed "grave concerns about the increased number of child fall incidents from second story windows."
The falls have continued in spite of a 2018 law meant to prevent the problem, which Congress enacted in response to earlier accidents. Evan's Law was named for four-year-old Evan English, son of a Navy commander, who died in 2011 from a window fall on a base in Hawaii. Among other safeguards, the law is meant to require U.S. military landlords to install child guards or locks on upstairs windows within 42 inches of the floor.
The measure aimed to ensure window safety in military housing met or exceeded civilian housing standards, say members of Congress who helped pass it, by requiring safety devices on all upstairs windows that posed risks.
In many cases, interviews and records show, the installations haven't happened. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense hasn't completed a required children's window safety assessment in military housing, and hasn't tapped funds to help its private housing partners deal with the problem.
‘GRAVE CONCERNS' IN THE NAVY
Around Naval Base San Diego, four children, including Robbie, were injured last year. The Needhams' neighborhood, Howard Gilmore Terrace, features two-story townhouses where another child had been injured in a 2018 fall, records show.
Eight weeks after Robbie Needham's fall, Navy records and other documents show, another child in the same neighborhood, a two-year-old, fell through a screen from an upstairs window and suffered a fractured skull.
A 10-minute drive north, 22-month-old Lovelyn Griser fell out of an upstairs window in Lincoln Military Housing's Eucalyptus Ridge neighborhood in 2017. Lovelyn had brain swelling and was hospitalized for 46 days, her mother Amanda said, recounting how doctors kept her in an induced coma for a week. The fall permanently impaired the girl's peripheral vision, her mother said. The Grisers sued Lincoln over Lovelyn's injury and settled the case on undisclosed terms.
Lincoln declined to discuss the case or the lawsuit.
Despite the history of incidents, Lincoln hadn't offered the Needhams window guards before their child fell, Kate said. It put a safeguard device in quickly after Robbie's fall. Lincoln declined to comment on the incident, but said it's committed to ensuring all its windows are child-safe.
CEO Philip Rizzo told Reuters "window safety has and will always be a top priority." He said Lincoln is retrofitting more than 50,000 windows across its portfolio and has installed at least 31,700 window opening control devices. The Department of Defense has assured Lincoln it is in "full compliance" with window safety regulations, Rizzo said.
Since the early 2000s, family housing on U.S. military bases has been mostly taken over by private companies in partnerships with military branches. The overhaul was meant to improve housing, save billions of dollars and shift property management to the private sector.
The program has been troubled. In a 2018-2019 series, Reuters documented dangerous housing conditions for thousands of service families. In response to the coverage, Congress and the Pentagon committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve housing. Yet window safety has remained an issue on multiple bases.
Getting window safety devices into homes quickly was critical, the Navy said in its June 2020 letter to housing providers. Families, the letter said, must be given the option to have devices installed when signing a lease. "We ask that you not delay installation," the letter said.
Childproofing windows can be relatively inexpensive. The Navy letter mentioned two window-guard devices that cost between $20 and $100 per window at retail.
"The health, safety and security of our Sailors and their families are top priorities," a spokesman for Naval Base San Diego said, saying the Navy was "aggressively working with Lincoln Military Housing" to get the devices installed.
Among dozens of U.S. military bases where housing has been privatized, however, thousands of existing units where upstairs windows pose a potential hazard haven't received the safeguards.
In response to a congressional inquiry this year, the Department of Defense said landlords have been installing the devices "during major renovation or new construction," plans for which often span over decades in their long-term contracts.
In the interim, in many cases the landlords send families written material telling them to keep windows shut, or place warning stickers on windows that depict a child falling out.
"That sticker sends a message," said one military spouse, who shared a picture of one in her home on a Hawaii base. "If a child falls, it's your fault and you've been warned."
The Defense Department has not completed a child window safety assessment that Evan's Law required by the end of 2019. The department said it faced challenges determining "what constitutes a child safety assessment" and identifying a qualified party to conduct the work. It said it hopes to complete the assessment this year.
Congress has authorized the military to seek government funds to comply with Evan's Law. But a military grant authority meant to help private housing landlords buy and install protective devices has gone unused. "Using the grant authority has not been necessary," the Pentagon told Reuters, because "privatized housing partners are proactively installing the devices."
In March, some members of the U.S. Senate and House Armed Services Committees received a closed-door briefing about the issue and other housing lapses still affecting military families.
Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who helped pass Evan's Law and chairs a subcommittee overseeing Navy funding, said she is pressing for action. "I have pushed DOD to make sure the law is implemented," Hirono told Reuters.
(Reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Additional reporting by Andrea Januta. Editing by Ronnie Greene)