Military Failing to Provide Required Help for Victims of Sexual Assault and Abuse, Watchdog Finds

Marines walk along the streets to raise awareness about sexual assault
Marines aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. walk along the streets to raise awareness about sexual assault during the annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month Walk, April 29, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns)

Military victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault are often not getting the help of special criminal investigators and prosecutors they're entitled to under federal law, the Defense Department inspector general found in a report released late Wednesday.

The Air Force in particular did not assign prosecutors specially trained to handle those crimes in 94% of sample cases from 2018-2020 the IG found, and it failed to assign certified lead investigators in 66% of cases.

The other services also did poorly in supporting victims, according to the IG. The Army failed to provide specially certified prosecutors in 50% of cases, and the Navy didn't in 59% despite legal and military regulations requiring the services.

Federal law requires that each of the service branches provide uniquely skilled investigators, judge advocates, paralegals and witness assistance staff to handle what are deemed special victim crimes such as sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence.

"We found that the DoD cannot ensure that all victims of sexual assault are receiving support services available to them," Sean O'Donnell, the acting Defense Department inspector general, said in a press release. "We also found that the DoD cannot ensure that all commanders and investigators are making decisions based on the best possible information because of, among other things, inexperienced or untrained prosecutors."

The shortfalls also increase the risk that victims won't receive needed services such as mental health counseling, the IG said.

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Congress pushed the Pentagon to implement the programs nearly a decade ago. It turned over a plan in 2013 to set up the networks of special victims investigative and legal support, but the efforts have failed to keep up with needs, especially among sexual assault victims.

The number of unrestricted reports of sexual assaults in the military more than doubled from 2,640 to 5,699 between 2011 and 2019, according to the IG investigation.

"However, the services have not provided a corresponding increase in resources and manpower to address the increased workload," the report found.

Lawmakers have become frustrated by the military's lack of progress on reducing sexual assaults despite years of effort and support for a major overhaul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The call for change has reached a tipping point that all but ensures a series of reforms will be passed in the annual defense authorization bill.

The IG findings also come amid a separate survey this week that found about half of the 68,000 members of the Air Force and Space Force reported experiencing some form of mental or physical abuse in the past two years. The violence included hazing, rape and murder.

The Air Force and Navy said they did not have enough certified investigators to cover all of the special victim cases. The Air Force's investigative arm, the Office of Special Investigations, has requested additional personnel and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is set to receive more support and funding this fiscal year, according to the report.

But the Army Criminal Investigation Division did not respond to the IG about its personnel resources, saying it had trained and certified more than 1,000 special agents to investigate special victim crimes. The IG said it considers the question of whether the Army has the resources it needs unresolved.

Editor’s Note: After publication, received the following emailed statement from Ann Stefanek, a spokesperson for the Air Force. “The Department of the Air Force was already aware of the issues identified in the DoD IG report and initiated initial corrective actions in 2020, which are still ongoing. The identified limitations did not affect the outcome of cases as validated by multiple internal and independent external reviews over the  last several years. The Department is fully committed to providing support to victims, thoroughly investigating all allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic violence, and holding perpetrators accountable.”

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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