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Congress must confront sexual abuse of military children

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A bipartisan bill by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) seeks to prevent child abuse and address domestic violence within military families. That’s a worthwhile mission that demands our full attention but the legislation is a missed opportunity to confront one of the most important challenges facing the sons and daughters of our service members.  And until members of Congress have the courage to step forward and call it by its name — child sexual abuse — we will continue to fail thousands of at-risk military children and families who deserve better.

The Military Family PROTECT Act proposes to strengthen the military’s handling and prosecution of child abuse and domestic violence claims. The bill’s sponsors argue these provisions will help “ensure that every base and every military region has a plan and the tools they need to fight these horrific crimes.”

{mosads}Yet the bill overlooks the specific problem of child sexual abuse in the military, and offers no plan to attack it head-on.  


Hundreds of military children are sexually abused every year and the military is doing little about it. An Associated Press (AP) investigation found there were nearly 1,600 “substantiated” sexual abuse cases of military dependents between 2010 and 2014.  The AP concluded that assault and rape cases among kids on military bases “often die on the desks of prosecutors, even when an attacker confesses.” In other cases, criminal prosecutors “shelve them,” the AP found, “despite requirements they be pursued.”  

The Pentagon’s silent response to these startling statistics of military child sexual abuse is troubling. The Department of Defense (DoD) has allocated little, if any, resources to monitor it, and has implemented no known educational or training programs to try and prevent it. The AP went even further, asserting that the “Pentagon does not know the scope of the problem and does little to track it.”

And yet the warning signs of child sexual abuse on military bases are painfully obvious. More inmates are locked up in military prisons for it than for any other crime, the AP found. And 90 percent of all child sexual abuse cases involve a person known or trusted by the child, where the opportunity for abusers to groom children in a military environment is magnified, due to the close living quarters and relationships many military families share.

To be clear, legislative efforts that advance the protection of children, even those that may be imperfect, are always worth pursuing. And while the Military Family PROTECT Act may not address explicitly the critical issue of child sexual abuse, that doesn’t mean the bill shouldn’t become law.  The legislation, if fully implemented, would indeed strengthen families and support children, but the dire situation of child sexual abuse in military families deserves specific attention and immediate action. Common sense dictates that political leaders should support initiatives that are designed to help vulnerable military populations.

But we’re not living in common sense political times. And certain members in Congress filibustered — twice — to block Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) from moving forward.  

The MJIA sought to protect adult military service members who are raped and sexually assaulted in record numbers each year, often by individuals in their chain-of-command. Victims typically don’t report their abusers out of a fear of retaliation, where they risk being branded as weak or disloyal by military brass who control their futures. The MJIA hoped to empower military prosecutors with the authority to pursue these crimes and remove such decisions from the chain-of-command.  But those who blocked the bill apparently believe the fox should continue to guard the hen house.

We can’t afford to have this same mindset when it involves the welfare of military children. We must break the silence associated with “child sexual abuse” and pursue tangible solutions that can prevent it from happening. Members of Congress have a unique opportunity to lead by example. They can use this moment to confront this issue in the Military Family PROTECT Act, and right a terrible wrong that continues to impact children everywhere on U.S. military bases.

Or lawmakers can stay in their comfort zones and look the other way — where they refuse to reach across the aisle to find common political ground to protect families from child sexual abuse — and be left with some serious soul searching to do.

Lyndon Haviland, MPH, DrPH, is an advocate for public health and is the former CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that aims to prevent child sexual abuse.

Tags Abuse Child abuse Child sexual abuse Domestic violence Kirsten Gillibrand Rape Sex crimes Sexual abuse Sexual misconduct Thom Tillis Violence against women

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