Veterans and visitors to VA facilities can now report incidents of sexual harassment or assault that occur on campus by calling the Department of Veterans Affairs' 1-800-MyVA411 information line.
Officials announced Wednesday that the call center, established in 2019 to provide information on VA health care services, disability compensation and education benefits and serve as a venue to receive veterans' concerns, will take confidential reports on incidents of rape, assault or harassment.
According to the VA, the hotline will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and callers will have access to follow-up health care and support if needed.
The new method of reporting is in addition to the VA's current avenues for reporting an incident, which include reporting directly to VA police, a VA staff member or local law enforcement.
"By creating multiple avenues for persons to report sexual harassment or sexual assault incidents, the VA removes barriers to reporting and creates a quicker path for VA to investigate and take appropriate action," Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press release Wednesday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not provide details on the number of incidents of sexual assault or harassment reported in the past decade by veterans or visitors to VA campuses, including family members, caregivers or survivors.
But a 2011 Government Accountability Office investigation -- more than a decade ago -- found that nearly 300 assaults were reported to VA police from 2007 to 2010, including 134 rapes, nearly half of which came in 2010.
A 2022 GAO report found that policies at the VA to prevent and address sexual harassment were incomplete and noted that 17% of VA employees said they had been sexually harassed, compared with 12% of non-VA employees in similar settings.
That report did not address sexual harassment against veterans or VA visitors.
During a press conference with reporters Wednesday, VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said the department has the data and plans to distribute it. He cautioned against drawing conclusions on trends in the data, however, saying that any increases in reports can be attributed to the "more open environment" the VA has fostered to encourage victims to step forward.
"When you institute programming and make for a more open environment around reporting, which is the … first and most important step, a cultural step that makes it clear to veterans and employees alike that reports will be taken seriously and addressed, you actually see and expect reports to go up. That's actually a positive sign," Elnahal said.
"MyVA411 will actually increase reports, and we think that's a good thing because every single report we get is an opportunity to address a veteran who's been wronged," he added.
Pressure began mounting on the VA to improve its prevention efforts and policies on sexual assault and harassment in 2019 when a Navy Reserve member and senior congressional staffer, Andrea Goldstein, reported she had been sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C., and her claims weren't taken seriously.
No criminal charges were filed, but a subsequent investigation found that the facility lacked functioning security cameras and employees did not respond adequately to the incident.
Former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, appointed to the job by then-President Donald Trump, also was investigated in relation to the case over allegations that he actively sought to discredit Goldstein, an adviser to the Democratic chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The VA Office of Inspector General concluded that Wilkie disparaged Goldstein but did not actively order staff to investigate her background.
Department officials said they have taken a number of steps since then to prevent and address sexual harassment and sexual assault at VA facilities, such as establishing locations in facilities for visitors to report incidents; implementing bystander intervention training for staff and veterans; and encouraging employees and veterans to take a pledge never to commit a sex crime or stay silent if they witness or have knowledge of one.
The VA also has a working group on sexual assault and harassment prevention that crafts recommendations on VA policies and outreach on sexual assault and harassment.
VA officials said they will take all reports of assault or sexual harassment occurring on VA property seriously and encourage victims to notify the department, regardless of the amount of time that has passed. The numeric version of 1-800-MyVA411 is 1-800-698-2411. Press 9 to report.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.