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Military survivors of child sex abuse deserve more

Military survivors of child sex abuse deserve more
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U.S. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy made headlines this month when he reacted to the findings of an investigation into the climate of violence and sexual harassment at Fort Hood, Texas. “This report, without a doubt,” he said, “will cause the Army to change our culture.” 

If the secretary is true to his word, he will also commit to dismantling the cover-up culture of child sexual abuse at Army posts both here and abroad. The secretaries of the Navy and Air Force should commit to do the same.

Three months ago the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found military leaders are failing their responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse and hold abusers accountable. The numbers are mind blowing: from January 2015 to December 2017, “600 incidents that could have been reported as serious juvenile-on-juvenile misconduct” at Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools. 

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The review found a consistent and appalling lack of reporting to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DoJ) and civilian authorities. Most alarming, based on a statistical sample, there was no evidence that installation commanders took any administrative action in 86 percent of the cases. Children of our active duty military deserve better.

The Pentagon’s OIG made a clear recommendation to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force: update the policies to properly document how such incidents are investigated and/or referred to the appropriate authorities. 

The Army ignored it. The chief of the Law Enforcement Division for the Army provost marshal General “did not address the recommendation,” the OIG report stated.  The chief “did not state whether he agreed or disagreed … nor did he describe the actions the Army would take in response to the recommendation.” Respondents on behalf of the secretary of the Navy punted on it as well.

The IG’s report followed a February U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) review citing a host of other accountability measures for the U.S. Army and other military branches on child abuse. The GAO said they should create a process to ensure incidents are routed and tracked appropriately, and recommended they advise families of the way such matters will be handled. The GAO also recommended they create a “memorandum of understanding with the National Children’s Alliance that makes children’s advocacy center services available” to all installations.  It’s unclear if the Army, or any of the other US military services, implemented these actions.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstSenate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Republicans demand arms embargo on Iran after militia strikes in Iraq Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal MORE (R-Iowa) reacted to the OIG findings: “Military kids shouldn’t be less safe than civilian kids, and that’s how the DoD school system appears to operate. … I want to make sure those who have failed to report sexual misconduct against children be held responsible.” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden gets involved to help break Senate logjam Overnight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels MORE (R-Texas) echoed her comments: “It is clear from this report that the Pentagon’s response to children suffering abuse fell far too short in many cases.” 

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Military leaders cannot claim ignorance. Back in 2018, the Associated Press (AP) exposed the Pentagon for not tracking reports of juvenile-on-juvenile sexual violence on military bases. The DoD claimed it couldn’t even identify how many assaults there had been. So the AP simply filed Freedom of Information Act Requests (FOIA) to find the answer. It raises this question: Did the DoD not track these cases because they didn’t want to know the answer and be compelled to confront the problem?

Improving reporting protocols to ensure victims and survivors receive the justice they deserve is critical. More importantly, the military could embrace prevention to protect the 1.2 million children of active duty members. They could make training and prevention education a priority for those in military communities to help adults who live with and work around children spot early warning signs of abuse and grooming. They could create a culture that removes the stigma surrounding child sexual abuse that often forces survivors and their families to internalize their grief and shame. They could commit to preventing tremendous suffering. 

Instead, the US Army, the military’s largest branch, dismissed the Pentagon’s own internal investigative division by refusing to acknowledge the problem of child sexual abuse, or take basic steps to try and fix it.  

Shame on them. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.