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Pentagon shoots down office for sexual assault victims

Michael Roston
Published: Tuesday July 18, 2006

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A proposal to establish an office to assist victims of sexual assault in the military has been rejected by the Department of Defense, RAW STORY has learned.

A number of groups concerned with the problem of sexual assault in the US Armed Forces, along with Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, had called for the creation of an "Office of Victim Advocate" within Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's office. A contracted study submitted by researchers at the Wellesley College Centers for Women on the establishment of the office had been considered within the Pentagon, but a brief report in the Washington Times on July 7 indicated that the proposal had been shot down within the Defense Department.

The Pentagon declined to offer a detailed explanation of why the study's recommendations were not implemented. A spokesman only told RAW STORY "the Department does not tolerate sexual assault of any kind and the department has worked vigorously to implement programs to prevent [it]."

The defeat of the proposal to create a centralized system to respond to victims' needs comes at a time when reports of sexual assaults are on the rise. The Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office submitted a report to Congress in March showing 2,374 alleged assaults during calendar year 2005, an increase of almost 40% from the 1,700 alleged assaults in 2004. The SAPR office suggested that the increase in allegations may be the result of a new confidential reporting option that allows victims to receive services without conducting criminal investigations.

As of December 31, 2005, only 626 of the completed investigations had resulted in a case for ultimate disposition by a military commander, and 274 of the alleged offenders in those cases received punitive actions including courts martial, nonjudicial punishment, or adverse actions or discharges, while 352 alleged offenders awaited final action. There were still 661 additional pending investigations at the end of 2005.

That so many cases are not pursued because the perpetrator could not be identified, or because evidence was insufficient "highlighted the need for the Department of Defense to do a better job of training new and existing first responders to respond to sexual assaults occurring in the military. Criminal investigators, medical professionals, and victims advocates all needed to be trained on gathering, protecting, and processing evidence," according to Rep. Slaughter in remarks on June 27 before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform that were provided to RAW STORY by her staff.

The Pentagon currently sits astride a varied system of victim advocates. All of the services appear to have Sexual Assault Response Coordinators who synchronize care for victims, including by assigning an advocate upon receiving a request for assistance. The precise number of advocates is not known but testimony by Dr. Kaye Whitley, Acting Director of SAPR, shows that it is well over 10,000 individuals.

A Pentagon spokesperson told RAW STORY "The Department of Defense voluntarily established a requirement for victim advocates because they are a proven concept," and described their primary role as assisting victims to "obtain counseling, medical treatment, and other services and help them "navigate" the system," including the filing of criminal charges at the request of the victim. As Whitley noted to Congress, the advocate, "provides 24/7 direct response to victims."

However, Anita Sanchez, the Director of Communications at the Miles Foundation, an organization that advocates for military programs to prevent and respond to sexual assault, sees problems with the current approach. She told RAW STORY that for many of the advocates, "This is a voluntary position, many are uniformed personnel, and for both the victim and the advocates themselves it poses issues. They have limited education and training, and their background is not within this type of assistance or services."

These concerns were echoed by Rep. Slaughter, who warned that in the military, "victim services remain incomplete and inconsistent among the various branches. There have been reports that victims advocates, charged with protecting the victim's rights, have been denied resources to do their job, and in some instances been forced off the base all together," and added that in the absence of better services, "the military will continue to lose valuable female and male soldiers."

These worries prompted Rep. Slaughter to reintroduce her "Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act," on May 2nd with 28 co-sponsors. The bill includes a variety of provisions, but its first title seeks to establish an Office of Victim Advocate to assist victims of alleged assaults.

Slaughter explained in her testimony that the Defense Department needs an Office of Victim Advocate "to oversee and coordinate efforts to prevent and respond to cases of family violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking within the military and among military families."

Linda Williams, the chief researcher of the rejected Wellesley study and now a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, told RAW STORY that she could not offer any details of its recommendations because the project was prepared under contract to the Defense Department. But, it is likely that the Wellesley study shared some rationale with Slaughter's proposal.

Rep. Slaughter's staff did not know who in the Pentagon had held up the Office of Victim Advocate proposal, but offered RAW STORY some insight into why the Pentagon might have rejected it.

John Santore, Slaughter's Deputy Communications Secretary, said that opposition within the military results because "there is a natural pushback about being told and dictated to on what to do and the way it works with the current advocacy is that there is a policy directive and there is latitude to implement as they see fit." With a single standard he explained, "they would have to fall into it, and the military bristles with that."

Santore also warned that this attitude combined efficiently with the distribution of what he characterized as "misinformation by pundits," perhaps referring indirectly to the work of Elaine Donnelly, the President of the non-governmental Center for Military Readiness, who has strongly and frequently criticized the proposed office.

Ms. Donnelly did not respond to multiple requests for interview by RAW STORY, but her opinions on the proposal have been aired elsewhere. Dismissing an Office of Victim Advocate as an "Office of Male Bashing" in a variety of articles published in Human Events, the National Review, and other conservative media publications, Donnelly has warned that the office "would nuclearize the war between the sexes," in the Armed Forces and create a "a man-eating plant with worldwide reach," inside the Pentagon. Ultimately, Donnelly warns, the Victim Advocates proposal would bring a civilian, feminist sensibility to the American military and undermine its ability to serve national security and defense functions.

How widespread Donnelly's opinions are within the military are not clear. But the possibility exists that without a centralized office, and legislation to back it up, the work of some victim advocates could be undermined over time.

Anita Sanchez of the Miles Foundation explained, "What currently exists is an all volunteer program, a duplication of effort, no authorization or financial support for that program." She then warned that unit victim advocates in the military now "are not authorized by Congress, and if there is a change in policy, they can go by the wayside."

Meanwhile, although the centralized Victim Advocate office may have been rejected, Linda Williams, the researcher who completed the contract for the Defense Department, felt that the possibility of improving victim services should still be a priority.

"The important thing is that the job gets done," she said.