The U.S. Department of Defense is struggling to change how it handles the abuse of military kids, including cases involving sexual assault by other children, according to a report commissioned by Congress.
The military has been slow to implement reforms that lawmakers mandated more than a year ago, said the report released Wednesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon still doesn’t know the extent of child-on-child sexual assaults, in part because some officials dismiss incidents without reporting them and the Pentagon has no one place to track all cases that have been logged.
Worldwide, more than 1.2 million school-age children live with military families, many on large bases that include schools, recreation centers, playgrounds and other trappings of civilian life.
While the report credited the Pentagon and some armed services for making policy changes on paper, it concluded ground-level change was lagging.
“I’d say their intentions are good. They’re starting to make progress,” said Brenda Farrell, the report’s primary author. “But it has a long way to go in order to get it to the point where they have oversight in place to be able to say that things are actually improving or that they’ve got this particular area under control.”
Lawmakers tasked Congress’ watchdog agency with doing its review after an Associated Press investigation detailed how justice failed both victims and offenders in child-on-child sexual assaults on bases.
AP’s reporting showed how the Pentagon and Department of Justice were failing both victims and offenders. Cases that investigators made often died on the desks of prosecutors, even when an attacker confessed. Victims were denied help because regulations granted counseling only if the attacker was an adult.
In response, Congress passed legislation that required a series of reforms, starting in fall 2018. Wednesday’s report amounted to a progress check.
The report recommended 23 changes, which the GAO’s Farrell said was a high number.
“If the leadership sends the message this is a high priority, then everyone else will start to fall in line,” Farrell said.
In responses included in the report, the Defense Department generally agreed with the suggestions.
On one recommendation, the Pentagon said it was working with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve how criminal investigators and prosecutors respond to cases. AP found that federal prosecutors with jurisdiction over many large domestic bases and all overseas bases rarely prosecute. On some bases, state prosecutors have jurisdiction — and were much more likely to take a case. Unlike the federal system, states have juvenile justice programs that focus on rehabilitation.
Another recommendation cited a lack of pediatric sexual assault forensic examiners to help build cases based on physical evidence — the military there are only 11 such specialists, the report said. The Pentagon agreed that more expertise was needed and said it was working on building that expertise.
Generally, the changes related to child-on-child sexual assault so far have focused on revising written policies for how to handle and track reports. The military’s equivalent of social services, the Family Advocacy Program, published new guidelines as did the Army and the Pentagon-run school system known as the Department of Defense Education Activity, know as DoDEA.
AP’s investigation documented nearly 700 sex assault reports on U.S. bases worldwide over 10 years, a certain undercount because the Pentagon did not systemically track cases.
The GAO also found that the Defense Department didn’t know the full scope of the problem because data kept by its various branches was incomplete — and a centralized tracking system is a long way from reality. The Pentagon said it awarded a contract to develop a database in mid-November.
The Defense Department “has not yet identified all information requirements, developed a plan for how it will use the data it collects, or established a schedule for development and implementation,” GAO said of a tracking database.
The report also found that some complaints weren’t getting classified as abuse by staff at military bases. That staff has “considerable discretion” in deciding whether complaints are investigated or recorded in incident-tracking data.
In the Defense Department’s education system, for example, the GAO identified incidents of student misconduct, including unwanted genital contact, that base schools didn’t treat as serious and report to the upper administration.
"As a result, systemic issues within a particular school or district may never be reported to DoDEA’s leadership,” said the report, “and any additional resources that a school or district needs to prevent future incidents may not be identified.”
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