Departments Collaborate to Combat Sexual Assault
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 20, 2010 The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have made significant strides in assisting sexual assault victims, but more work remains to be done, the director of the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention and response office said today.
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in society, presenting a challenge to both departments, Kaye Whitley said in prepared remarks to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs.
Defense Department studies indicate that about eight of 10 sexual assaults in the military go unreported, Whitley noted.
“Victims are concerned about losing their privacy, fearful about being judged, fearful of retaliation and afraid that people will view them differently,” she said. “Female and male military victims alike mistakenly believe their victimization somehow makes them weak and less of a warrior.
“They worry that their career advancement will be disrupted and their security clearances revoked,” she added.
To encourage more victims to come forward, Whitley said, the department offers restricted and unrestricted reporting options. Restricted reporting enables victims to access medical care and advocacy services confidentially, she explained.
Since the restricted reporting option was introduced in 2005, the department had received 3,486 restricted reports through the end of fiscal 2009, Whitley said.
“We believe that number represents 3,486 victims who would not have otherwise come forward to access care,” she said. “Restricted reporting is having the desired effect.”
Whitley said she’s encouraged that reports of sexual assault have been increasing by about 10 percent annually over the past three years. Still, the department would like see more victims come forward to report sexual assault, she added.
She acknowledged that the prevention of and response to sexual assault are demanding undertakings and shouldn’t be tackled alone. She pointed out the Defense Department’s collaboration with other federal, state and nonprofit agencies to maximize the effectiveness of the department’s program. One of the department’s key collaborations is with the Veterans Affairs Department, she noted.
This collaboration recently has paid off with regard to documentation, Whitley said. Officials developed the Victim Preference Reporting Form, called DD 2910, to explain reporting options and to indicate the servicemember’s choice of an unrestricted or confidential report.
VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration has agreed to accept a copy of this form, she noted, signed by both the victim and the sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate, as evidence of sexual assault. The document can be used as part of the paperwork for a service-connection determination, she explained.
The goal is to ensure victims have proof of sexual assault, even if the member never reported the incident or made a restricted report and opted not to receive medical care, Whitley said.
“Just as the DD 214 is the main basis for proof of military service, we would like the DD 2910 … to be universally accepted as proof that a victim made a report of sexual assault,” she said.
The departments also work together to ensure sexual assault victims are connected with appropriate services, she said, and a VA representative participates on the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council, the main oversight body for the department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program.
While the departments have made progress, more work remains to be done, Whitley acknowledged, starting with one of the existing barriers to collaboration: state mandatory reporting laws.
Servicemembers in a number of states, including California, who wish to access medical care for sexual assault do not have the restricted reporting option, she explained. California’s Penal Code, for instance, requires health care practitioners to make a report to law enforcement if they suspect crimes of a sexual nature have been committed. Once they notify civilian law enforcement, there’s no guarantee that military law enforcement won’t be the next step, she said, and they’re obligated to investigate and notify the command.
“If our active-duty members could make restricted reports in federally funded facilities, such as a VA Medical Center – no matter where it is located – we believe this would allow us a wider variety of options to offer victims for care,” Whitley said. “We do not know how many more reports we would have received had the restricted reporting option been available in California. This is a challenge we need help in resolving.”
Whitley reiterated the importance of collaboration in combating sexual assault.
“Each day, our servicemembers dedicate their lives to protecting our country and deserve no less than the very best care and support in return,” she said. “That is why it is so very important that we work together to make this program the best it can be.”