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House Panel Questions Progress of Military Sexual Assault Policies

On September 10, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held the second part of an oversight hearing on sexual assault in the military. The subcommittee held the first hearing on July 31 (see The Source, 8/1/08). 

Chair John Tierney (D-MA) expressed frustration with the failure of Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Department of Defense (DoD) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), to appear before the committee in July. “Beginning several months ago, we had asked to receive testimony from the Defense Department’s top expert on sexual assault, Dr. Kaye Whitley…Dr. Whitley’s office is, by the Pentagon’s own acknowledgement, the…’single point of accountability for Department of Defense sexual assault policy.’ Inexplicably, the Defense Department refused to allow Dr. Whitley to testify before Congress. The Oversight Committee – with bipartisan support – was forced to subpoena her.” He continued, “We are satisfied that Dr. Whitley is appearing unfettered before us today to shed light on the work of her office and the challenges remaining.” 

Rep. Tierney also acknowledged the work that remains in preventing sexual assault in the military. “As the GAO [Government Accountability Office] will document more fully later this morning, programs need to be standardized and staffed with dedicated personnel and dedicated funding. A message of zero tolerance needs to be vigorously enforced…all the way up the chain of command. The message must come clearly, repeatedly, and vigorously that not a single case of sexual assault by, or against, a member of the U.S. military is tolerable, and that it will be punished to the full extent of the law.” 

Ranking Member Christopher Shays (R-CT) echoed Rep. Tierney’s disappointment with the DoD’s refusal to allow Dr. Whitley to testify in July, saying, “I find this foolish and perplexing. Our question to DoD was what authority grants them the right to prevent a government employee from testifying before Congress and the American people? DoD has not answered this question and we expect a response, regardless of the fact that Dr. Whitley is present today.” 

Rep. Shays added, “At the [June] 2006 hearing, Dr. Whitley testified about improvements and effectiveness of the sexual assault program implemented since [then], stating over 1 million service members and 5,000 victim advocates had been trained on sexual assault prevention and awareness. Dr. Whitley also said there were new reporting standards for sexual assaults. I believe the Government Accountability Office today will validate that these measures have been instituted. However, at this 2006 hearing, we were also assured a defense task force and comprehensive database on sexual assault in the military were days away from being fully operational. Given their first meeting occurred 731 days after this statement, I hope Dr. Whitley will correct the record today and explain to us why it took the task force so long to have their first meeting.” Rep. Shays concluded his remarks by saying, “There exist very real problems that we must get to the bottom of…not next year…not next month…not next week…but today.”  

Dr. Whitley said that the “DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response policy has three cornerstones: victim care…prevention through training and education…and system accountability.” With regard to “victim care,” Dr. Whitley said, “Every military installation in the world both in garrison and deployed now has a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). Each SARC trains and oversees one or more Victim Advocates who help victims understand their reporting options and pathways to medical and mental health care…In addition, the Department has instituted restricted reporting, which allows a service member victim to confidentially access medical care and advocacy services without reporting the crime to standard law enforcement or command channels.” With regard to “training and education,” Dr. Whitley noted, “All military services have implemented sexual assault awareness training at strategic points in an active duty member’s accession, development, and deployment. Training programs are tailored to the unique mission and culture of each military service. In addition, the Department is working with national experts to develop an effective prevention strategy.” With regard to “system accountability,” Dr. Whitley said, “In addition to the SAPRO office, the following entities are either examining the effectiveness of DoD’s policy and programs or recently examined it: the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, the Government Accountability Office, and the DoD Inspector General.” 

In describing restricted and unrestricted victim reporting, Dr. Whitley said, “Research indicates that victims of sexual assault who get into care quickly are likely to have better outcomes. Research also shows that rape victims who don’t report their victimizations to an authority rarely seek treatment. One of the chief barriers to reporting, or in other words, one of the primary things that keeps sexual assault victims from coming forward in both the civilian and military communities is the fear of how that victim will be perceived by others. Consequently, we introduced a reporting system that allows victims to make a choice about how they report the crime of sexual assault. Our policy encourages victims to make an unrestricted report – that is a report to military law enforcement and command that allows the Department of investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. However, should victims feel unready to participate in the military justice system, they may choose to make a restricted report. This option enables victims to receive medical care, mental health care, and other support services without initiating a criminal investigation or alerting their command structure. This flexible reporting system is designed to respect the needs of victims and encourage them to get care quickly. Victims who initially make a restricted report may change their minds and participate in an official investigation at any time.” 

Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the General Accountability Office (GAO), said, “DoD and the Coast Guard have established policies and programs to prevent, respond to, and resolve reported sexual assault incidents involving service members; however, implementation of the programs is hindered by several factors. GAO found that (1) DoD’s guidance may not adequately address some important issues, such as how to implement the program in deployed and joint environments; (2) most, but not all, commanders support the programs; (3) required sexual assault prevention and response training is not consistently effective; and (4) factors, such as a DoD-reported shortage of mental health care providers, affect whether service members who are victims of sexual assault can, or do, access mental health services. Left unchecked, these challenges can discourage or prevent some service members from using programs when needed.” 

Ms. Farrell detailed some of the recommendations from its August report. “We suggested that Congress may wish to improve oversight of sexual assault incidents in the Coast Guard by requiring the Coast Guard to annually submit to Congress sexual assault incident and program data that are methodologically comparable to those required of DoD. We also made a number of recommendations to improve implementation of sexual assault prevention and response programs and improve oversight of the programs in DoD and the Coast Guard. With regard to DoD, to improve program implementation, we recommended that the agency review and evaluate its guidance for the prevention of, and response to, sexual assault, to ensure that adequate guidance is provided to effectively implement the program in deployed environments and joint environments; evaluate its processes for staffing and designating key installation-level program positions, to ensure that these individuals have the ability and resources to fully carry out their responsibilities; review and evaluate its training, to ensure that military services are meeting requirements and to enhance training effectiveness; systematically evaluate any factors that may prevent or discourage service members from accessing mental health services following a sexual assault; and emphasize to all levels of command their responsibility for supporting the program, and review the extent to which resources are available to raise service members’ awareness of sexual assault matters.” 

During questions, Dr. Whitley explained to the committee that she had been prepared to testify before the subcommittee in July, but was informed moments before she was scheduled to appear that she was under direct orders not to do so. Several members of Congress expressed concern about DoD’s initial refusal to allow Dr. Whitley to testify. Reps. Tierney and Shays also expressed concern about whether Dr. Whitley was advocating strongly enough on behalf of the program. Rep. Tierney noted that it “raises serious questions about the culture and whether the military takes this seriously.”

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