In 2018, a panel of military officials looked into the case of a then 2-year-old child of a Navy sailor and his estranged civilian wife, to determine if the boy had been abused.
The case was triggered by bruising on the toddler’s back after he returned from a visit with his mother.
The Hawaii state agency that investigates child abuse had found the father, Petty Officer 1st Class Jon Stremel, “to be the safe and protective parent …
“Mother was not able to clearly report how (the toddler) could have gotten those bruises.”
Stremel’s wife strongly contested any allegation that she had harmed the child. And a military panel, called an incident determination committee, or IDC, ruled that the evidence did not meet the criteria for child abuse.
But did it get the whole story?
Stremel’s case illustrates how an organization meant to aid military families experiencing domestic or child abuse has broad discretion over what evidence it presents to IDCs — and whether allegations get recorded at all. It’s leading the Navy to review its policies and staff training of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s Family Advocacy Program, or FAP.
A February 2020 report from the federal Government Accountability Office on the military’s tracking of child abuse cases found that FAP personnel “are given considerable discretion in deciding how reported incidents of child abuse are tracked and reported.”
In Stremel’s case, the FAP at Pearl Harbor did not present “relevant documents and the full case file … and did not allow the IDC to make a fully informed decision,” according to the preliminary results of a military investigation after Stremel filed an equal opportunity complaint. Stremel alleged FAP staff discriminated against him because he was a man. The EO case is still pending.
FAP did not share several documents it had obtained, including police reports, photos of the child’s alleged injuries, accounts of previous alleged abuse and reports from Hawaii’s Department of Health and Child Welfare Services.
FAP supervisors deemed them “not relevant.”
The IDC’s findings can cast a shadow over an accused service member’s career or end it — in serious cases it could lead to criminal investigations. But its decisions can also be used to exonerate the accused.
The IDC’s decision in Stremel’s case, based on this incomplete information, was used in court to prevent him from getting an extension of a temporary restraining order against his wife. He also alleges that FAP ignored other allegations of abuse for months.
In addition, Stremel alleges that because of his gender, the FAP did not take seriously his reports of being abused by his wife or help him find shelter.
A senior enlisted sailor present at the IDC meeting later wrote in a witness statement to the EO investigator that a FAP representative at the meeting “seemed solely focused” on defending Stremel’s wife “and not on the actual victim, (Stremel’s) son.” He added that “anything concerning a male victim is disregarded.”
David Hayakawa, an attorney for Stremel’s wife April, said that while gender bias against male victims of abuse is a problem and he supports the Navy reviewing its policies, he believes Stremel is an abuser posing as a victim.
“All of Mr. Stremel’s accusations have been thoroughly examined and rejected at every level including a family court trial in which the court made a specific finding that Mr. Stremel was a danger to his wife and that Mrs. Stremel was not a danger to him,” Hayakawa said.
Hayakawa said that the child’s tantrums were difficult to control and that April Stremel was still learning how to meet his needs. The boy has been diagnosed with autism.
The state official who found that April Stremel could not explain the bruises never physically examined the child, Hayakawa said, a fact that was confirmed by a subsequent Navy investigation. Hayakawa says Stremel manipulated state workers, skewing their view of events they recounted in reports.
As a result of recommendations by a military investigator who looked at Stremel’s case, the Navy is reviewing how it handles child and domestic abuse in Hawaii.
Stremel filed a discrimination complaint in December 2018. An Air Force officer was appointed to conduct an equal opportunity investigation of the FAP at Pearl Harbor while Navy Region Hawaii appointed a Navy civilian to conduct a separate command investigation.
A command investigation is a fact-finding report carried out at the request of a military commander. The findings or recommendations can lead to administrative or criminal actions, including calls for wide-ranging reforms, non-judicial punishment for individuals, reassigning or retraining personnel or recommending a criminal investigation.
The command investigation laid out deep concerns about the Pearl Harbor FAP. It found that FAP supervisors “appear to have unilateral authority regarding what documents/evidence is presented at the IDC.” It added that “supervisors have free range authority to make decisions, unchallenged and based solely on ‘clinical experience.’”
The investigator recommended a full review of the Pearl Harbor FAP’s policies and new training for its staff. U.S. Navy Installations Command is currently conducting that review, said Lydia Robertson, a Navy spokeswoman in Hawaii.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the review was being conducted by the U.S. Navy Facilities Command.
Questions about how these family advocacy programs handle cases like Stremel’s reach far beyond Hawaii. Last year Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema and Texas Sen. John Cornyn introduced the Military Domestic Violence Prevention Act, a bill geared at overhauling FAP.
The bill would require the military to provide a report on staffing and resources at FAP offices and calls on the Pentagon’s inspector general to present a report to Congress on FAP’s best practices for responding to domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect.
Federal officials have raised concerns that personal biases and inconsistent training of FAP employees have led to cases being mishandled or never reported at military bases worldwide.
The GAO report noted that Department of Defense regulations make clear that “every reported incident must be presented to the IDC unless there is no possibility that it could meet any of the criteria for abuse. However, personnel described incidents they had screened out that, per DOD guidance, should have been presented to the IDC.”
In Stremel’s case, one source of evidence that FAP failed to present to the IDC concerned a photograph and videos Stremel took of his wife giving their son a bath. The photos and videos depict April Stremel holding the child by either the chin, as FAP concluded, or around the throat, as an outside investigator found.
Both a caseworker with Parents And Children Together — a contractor for state Child Welfare Services — and the child’s early intervention specialist told Stremel that the clips and the picture were troubling and depicted potentially harmful handling of a child with special needs.
Both filed reports, later given to FAP.
Hayakawa, April Stremel’s lawyer, said that the photo is misleading and that Stremel had to be pressured to show video clips in court because they don’t show abuse but a mother trying to control a child who hates bath time.
When Stremel showed the photo to a FAP employee, she told him it looked perfectly normal, he said. The FAP described the photo in its internal notes as the wife holding her son’s chin. But the command investigator later wrote that she appeared to have been holding the toddler “around the throat.”
The investigator cited it as one of several examples of FAP downplaying allegations. FAP staff members later told the EO investigator that they felt the “case did not raise reasonable suspicion” of abuse and that Stremel had merely described “parenting concerns.” And so, they did not provide services or present allegations to the IDC.
A FAP supervisor later told an investigator that “FAP decides what is pertinent to the incident. We only bring what is relevant to the allegation.”
The supervisor also told the investigator that “we do an assessment, not an investigation” and that “evidence is not required.”
When the IDC met in October 2018, Stremel was not notified until that morning and wasn’t told what the committee concluded. But the IDC did release a copy of its finding of insufficient evidence of abuse to his wife and her attorney.
They presented it in court when Stremel attempted to extend a temporary restraining order. Stremel said he believes it derailed his case. The judge cut off testimony from one of his witnesses and denied his request, instead granting his wife a restraining order against him and encouraging the parents to continue shared custody.
However, Hayakawa said that all the evidence that FAP withheld from the IDC was presented to the court and made no difference in the outcome. “I don’t believe the Navy’s conclusions had any impact on the court’s ruling,” he said.
After the court hearing Stremel asked to appeal the IDC’s decision. Navy officials told him it would take six months.
And he would have to submit his appeal through the same FAP.
The Navy command investigator wrote that Stremel should be allowed to appeal his case without the involvement of FAP “to provide an independent and unbiased review of the facts.”
Meanwhile, the IDC’s first decision continued to have consequences for Stremel. In July 2019, Ed Cannon — the Director of Fleet and Family Readiness at the Washington Naval Yard in Washington, D.C. — sent a letter to Stremel saying he agreed with the IDC and saw evidence in FAP files that Stremel had abused his son.
Cannon sent Stremel’s wife a copy as well, which she used in court during a custody hearing. Stremel retained partial custody, but he said the experience shook him.
“When I read that sentence that said I physically abused my son, I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a darker place emotionally or mentally,” Stremel said. “I wanted to kill myself. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts until that month.”
In May 2020 — almost a year later — Cannon sent another letter to Stremel saying the previous letter should have stated that there was no evidence of abuse. Cannon wrote that it had all been a misunderstanding and that he’d put in place new policies to make sure it never happened again.
Officials at the Washington Naval Yard did not respond to requests for comment.
Stremel’s other primary allegation — that the FAP did not take seriously his claims of abuse at the hands of his wife — was backed up by one of his superiors, Chief Petty Officer Laquinta Dover.
Dover, who noticed at work that Stremel was distraught about his domestic problems, offered to take him to the FAP office.
Dover said the FAP caseworker focused on her, apparently thinking she was the one seeking help until she repeatedly explained that it was Stremel. Stremel described his wife’s alleged erratic behavior and asked if he could go to a shelter.
“She was listening, but she wrote absolutely nothing down,” Dover said. Both Dover and Stremel say the caseworker told them that she didn’t take notes because it would have forced her to start a case file.
“It just sounded like, by the line of questioning, she didn’t believe that (Stremel) was being abused and that (his son) was being abused as well,” Dover told Civil Beat. “It never became about what his son needed or what he was lacking.”
Dover later told investigators that she did not believe FAP would have treated a woman that way.
Later, FAP staff denied that appointment ever occurred. In a Nov. 18, 2018 email to Stremel’s superiors, a FAP employee wrote “I have true concerns about this person’s mental status and contact with reality.”
The employee Stremel and Dover say they met, who has since retired from FAP, told investigators she had never met either of them and had no notes or records of the meeting.
However, both Dover and Stremel independently identified a photo of the caseworker presented by the EO investigator and correctly described the location of her office and what it looked like inside. Both knew her nickname.
The command investigator noted concerns about the culture of the Pearl Harbor FAP office. He found the demeanor of one staff member “to be unfitting for a position that requires patience, empathy and due consideration for our service members and their family members who are coming to her for assistance.”
A December 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service on abuse in military families noted that in some scenarios, such as if the alleged abuser is a civilian living off-base, advocates should help the alleged victim find shelter.
Yet FAP staff made no effort to help Stremel find a shelter for him or his son. The Navy command investigator later wrote “I believe (Stremel) felt threatened by his wife and was afraid she would harm both himself and his child” and that “FAP should have contacted the command early on to communicate perceived threats and/or safety concerns.”
At one point, when Stremel mentioned to a FAP staff member that he had once driven an Army spouse to a safe house, the staffer told him no such house was available to him. Instead, he was referred to a counselor.
A supervisor later told an investigator that because “the case was alleged child abuse and not domestic violence” it “did not meet eligibility requirements for the Safe House” and that there was “no evidence that he or his child were in immediate risk of harm.”
Another employee told an investigator that she clarified to Stremel “while there was no shelter for men in 2018” that FAP could work with commanders “to explore other resources and assure safety” for an abused man.
The command investigation noted that FAP did not notify Stremel’s commanders or help Stremel seek those “other resources.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.