By LOLITA C. BALDOR Associated Press
Posted:   12/21/2012 11:59:30 AM EST

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is giving the Defense Department and the military services until Jan. 21 to review the backgrounds of all employees who have contact with children in department programs and to report back in writing.

Panetta’s memo follows revelations that at least 31 people were suspended from two Army day care centers at Fort Myer, Va., last week after officials scrutinized their backgrounds and found a range of criminal convictions.

The memo also underscores lingering questions about the Army’s handling of background checks for the day care centers.

Army officials declined comment, saying the matter is under investigation. But officials have been unable to say whether background checks were conducted on employees at the two centers, or if they were done poorly or were done but somehow ignored in the screening of personnel as they were hired.

The background checks were triggered by the arrests of two day care workers in September on multiple counts of assault on children at the Fort Myer Child Development Center. Last week, when the 31 workers were suspended—pending a full review of their possible criminal histories—the Army closed the center. The children and the approximately 100 remaining child care employees at Fort Myer were moved to the Cody Child Development Center, also on the base.

Officials this week—including President Barack Obama—expressed concern about the matter, and Panetta was angry that he did not find out about the issue until Tuesday. Officials said Army Secretary John McHugh found out about the arrests and the suspensions last Friday. Obama personally called McHugh late Tuesday night to urge a speedy investigation.

U.S. officials said McHugh is reviewing the matter and could rule on whether anyone should be disciplined or fired as a result.

Panetta’s memo, issued Thursday, says all segments of the department must ensure that background check procedures are being followed and that each document meets Pentagon requirements.

Under the existing process, human resources offices review the background checks. Any negative findings are referred to a child care review board, which then recommends whether the person should be hired.