Sexual Assault Task Force Urges More Oversight (2)

The Defense Department office that oversees sexual assault prevention and response in the military needs more oversight and funding, according to a task force created to assess the program.

Although the department and the services have improved on how members handle sexual assault prevention and response, more needs to be done, the co-chairs of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services told the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee.

The department “overall has made notable progress in addressing sexual assault” since the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was formed in 2005, said Louis Iasiello, one of the co-chairs. “At the same time, we found many opportunities for improvement,” he said.

Military leaders’ emphasis on prevention and the subsequent increased awareness of sexual assaults, along with more funding for the prevention and response office, have helped lead to improvements, Iasiello said. However, he said there needs to be more focus on the problem.

The task force’s report highlights the need for major emphasis on preventing sexual assault. “Doing so is not only a moral imperative but is critical to military readiness,” he said.

The task force recommends that the prevention and response office be elevated to placement under the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense for “at least one year or until the program is meeting established institutional goals,” Iasiello and Air Force Brig. Gen. Sharon K.G. Dunbar, task force co-chair, said in a joint statement.

The two said such an organizational structure would be “unconventional,” but they said the office’s current placement “has limited its visibility and ability to effectively address integral cross-cutting issues.”

Also, Iasiello said, “Higher level [of] oversight will ensure appropriate funding and focus on a program that is at a critical junction.”

Beginning in August 2008, the 10-member task force visited 60 military locations worldwide and met with more than 3,500 people.

Both military members and civilians at all levels reported inconsistent and insufficient funding, Iasiello said, adding that research and collaboration with the civilian sector for prevention strategies was affected.

The task force called for more consistency and standardization to sexual assault prevention, response, training and accountability across the services, and Dunbar said a clear strategy would drive such improvements.

“Leadership sets the tone” for sexual assault awareness, prevention and response, Dunbar said, and such a program is most effective in places where leaders are involved in things such as community discussions.

“Leadership clearly has a profound influence on the prevention of sexual assault, from strategy development and execution to continued focused and open discussion of the issue,” Dunbar and Iasiello said. “Commanders and leaders must take an active role in addressing the issue and modeling correct behavior.”

Prevention must be the primary goal of the program and training is key, Dunbar said. Training needs to be better tailored for leadership levels and should focus on risky behaviors and myths. And, she added, current training is too narrowly focused around women, “which makes it all the more difficult for male victims to come forward.”

The department and the service branches have made notable progress in improving victim assistance, especially by permitting victims to obtain immediate care and counseling without engaging law enforcement or their command authority, the task force reported.

It recommended the services go further by allowing privileged communication between victims and their advocates, which cannot be obtained by the alleged assailant’s attorneys.

The task force met with courts-martial convening authorities at every location, Iasiello said: “We saw a desire to aggressively pursue cases wherever they thought it was possible. So, the intent is there” to prosecute sexual assault cases in the military.

In the department’s most recent anonymous “Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members,” the report stated that 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men had reported unwanted sexual contact in the past 12 months.