DOD still struggles with kid-on-kid abuse
Study: Pentagon has a long way to go for a remedy
The Department of Defense is struggling to improve its dealing with the abuse of military kids, including cases involving sexual assault by other children, according to a report commissioned by Congress.
The Pentagon has been slow to implement reforms that lawmakers mandated more than a year ago, said the report released Wednesday by the 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 clearinghouse 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 ... but it has a long way to go in order to get it to the point ... to say that things are actually improving or that they’ve got this particular area under control,” said Brenda Farrell, the report’s primary author.
Lawmakers tasked Congress’ watchdog agency with doing its review after an Associated Press investigation detailed how justice failed both victims and offenders in child-onchild sexual assaults on bases. 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, and it recommended 23 changes, which Farrell said was a lot. In responses included in the report, the Defense Department generally agreed with the suggestions.
The Pentagon said it was working with the Justice Department 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 armed forces have just 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 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, or DoDEA.
AP’s investigation documented nearly 700 sex assault reports on U.S. bases worldwide over 10 years, which was certainly an 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 there is no centralized tracking system. The Pentagon said it awarded a contract to develop a database in mid-November.
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.
“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.”