The massive defense appropriations bill moving through the Senate Thursday includes legislation to curb the alarming occurence of sexual assaults on bases involving military families, including dependent minors abusing their peers.
The Military Family Protect Act, authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and co-sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, was aimed at improving "the military's response to child abuse and intimate partner violence and would strengthen prosecutions at each military installation or geographic region."
Under the provision, multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs), including social workers, advocates, investigators, prosecutors and medical personnel, would be set up at military installations to respond to special victim cases.
The legislation would also create a pilot program for home visiting services on military installations, modeled on existing civilian programs.
In addition, it would direct the Defense Department to share jurisdiction over crimes committed by juveniles on bases, including sexual assaults, with state authorities.
"Congress has to do more to end child abuse and intimate partner violence in military families," Gillibrand said earlier this month, when she announced that the amendment had been included in the $717 billion 2019 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The Senate on Thursday was debating appropriation of the funding for the policy proposals of the NDAA and was expected to vote by the end of the week.
The overall defense package, which also includes funding for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services, would then go to a conference committee with Senate and the House in the effort to reach a final bill for passage before the start of Fiscal Year 2019 on Oct. 1.
"I am proud our bipartisan legislation to establish multidisciplinary teams to protect military families from violence and abuse was included in the NDAA," Tillis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, said.
According to Gillibrand and Tillis, there were more than 12,000 suspected child abuse and neglect cases involving military families reported in FY2017, including 17 suspected deaths related to child abuse.
In March, an Associated Press investigative report found nearly 600 cases since 2007 in which dependent children were sexually assaulted by other children on military installations and in
Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools.
At a hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in May, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, confronted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the issue.
Mattis appeared to be unaware of the scope of the problem and said he had not seen a letter Murray sent him in March expressing her concerns and asking for a response.
Murray said she had written a detailed letter to Mattis in March asking "some straightforward questions about the scope of the problem and the Department's response," but had yet to receive an answer.
"So I'm concerned that the Department is not taking this seriously," she said.
Mattis promised to get back to her.
"I was unaware of that, but thank you for bringing it up," he said.
Sexual assault involving military families was "something that must be rooted out. It's important we stand up and say what we stand for," Mattis said. "On this one, it's even more important we say what we will not tolerate."
Mattis said the military has to accept that casualties will occur on the battlefield, but not at home.
"I do not accept a single casualty in the Department of Defense out of sexual assault. That is intolerable. So I don't know if it's a unique problem to us," he said, "[But] how do we stop it is the bottom line."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.