Bill targets military sexual assaults and domestic assaults

A New York congresswoman’s proposed bill would force the Pentagon to better protect service members against sexual and domestic violence.

The Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act, introduced Tuesday by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., would establish an Office of Victims Advocate within the Pentagon and create confidentiality protocols to protect the rights of victims under military law.

Additionally, the legislation would codify policies for preventing, responding to, treating and prosecuting cases of family violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in the military and among military families.

“It is unconscionable that our soldiers are too often victimized twice — first by their perpetrator, then again by the military’s lack of an appropriate and compassionate response,” said Slaughter, who called sexual and domestic violence “serious problems” in the military.

“My bill helps ensure that domestic violence or sexual assault victims in the military receive the treatment and justice he or she deserves.”

The military’s handling of sexual violence, in particular, has rankled members from both parties during a string of hearings over the past few years at which the Pentagon’s efforts have been harshly criticized.

The Pentagon in 2004 assembled a task force to examine the problem, and in 2005 it created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to coordinate military-wide education and response efforts by a network of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Victim Advocates.

It also allowed service members to make confidential “restricted” reports of sexual assaults — to seek care without triggering an investigation — in order to get more victims to come forward.

Slaughter acknowledged the Pentagon’s efforts but said they still fall short. She said violence-response services remain incomplete and inconsistent among the military branches, noted that she has seen reports that victims advocates have been denied resources to do their job, and alleged that in some instances, they have been forced off bases all together.

Slaughter also said that the Pentagon’s policies are not codified and don’t offer the same protections afforded to civilian victims, and charged that victims are unable to seek confidential counseling and treatment without fear that their records might become public if they press charges against their assailant.

“While we have taken steps to address this issue, the problem persists,” Slaughter said. “It’s one thing to serve your country and another thing to be assaulted by a fellow soldier, especially in circumstances where it’s someone of a higher rank.”

According to figures provided by Slaughter’s office, the Pentagon’s March 2007 sexual assault report cited 2,947 allegations of sexual assaults reported in 2006, a 24 percent increase from 2005.

In 2004, the Pentagon reported 9,000 incidents of spousal abuse.

A 2005 Sexual Harassment and Assault Survey of the Service Academies found 6 percent of females and 1 percent of males said they were sexually assaulted in 2004 and 2005, and less than half the females who experienced sexual assault reported it. In the same survey, 60 percent of female cadets at the military academies indicated the prevalence of sexual harassment was about the same as when they first enrolled at their academy, according to Slaughter’s office.

The Government Accountability Office reported last year that 52 percent of service members at 14 installations who had been sexually assaulted over the preceding 12 months had not reported the assaults.
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