Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Col. Alan Metzler, Deputy Director, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, U.S. Department of Defense
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me today to provide you with an update on the progress the Department of Defense has made in caring for victims of sexual assault. I am here as the Deputy Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
When we last briefed you in 2010, we told you of our efforts to standardize professionalize and institutionalize our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response – or SAPR - program. Since that time, we have pushed forward to expand and improve our support of victims of sexual assault and hold offenders appropriately accountable. Secretary Panetta has put great emphasis on dealing with the problem of sexual assault in the military. He has emphasized that sexual assault is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and families.
Before beginning my testimony today, we think is important to start with a baseline of understanding on several important issues:
Congress has authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide counseling and appropriate care and services to overcome the psychological trauma that results from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while a veteran served on active duty or active duty for training.
In the Department of Defense (DoD), the office that I represent is tasked with policy and oversight relating to the prevention and response of sexual assault only. Sexual harassment is addressed by the Equal Opportunity Program. Reported incidents of sexual harassment are not included in our statistics.
Finally, we would like to remind everyone that our DoD-wide sexual assault policy has been in place since 2005. All reports of sexual assault are of concern to us and we have focused on incidents post-2005, so that we can modify our current policy.
Since our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response policy was instituted in 2005, we have remained committed to our vision: A culture free from sexual assault. One sexual assault is too many. Given the recent changes to the program, we are optimistic that we have set the right initiatives in motion to achieve that vision. The horror of sexual assault demands an immediate response to those persons and behaviors that violate our shared military values of trust, honor and integrity. However, the solution requires more than just an immediate response to the crime. The solution comes from working this problem at every level of military – and civilian – society. From policies that improve the capabilities of institutions, down to the prevention skills and knowledge that empower our individual Service members, these initiatives must be supported and then be allowed to work. I can tell you that the Department will not ignore, tolerate or condone sexual assault. This is our problem. We own it. We must fix it.
Overcoming Barriers to Reporting and Care-Seeking
In 2010, we told you that a chief challenge facing DoD and VA is the fact that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in both civilian and military society. As you know, sexual assault has severe effects on civilian and military victims – but there are other factors that complicate a victim’s experience in the military and act as barriers to reporting:
· First, sexual assault often occurs where a victim works and lives. Until recently, a victim was unable to escape painful reminders that keep him or her from moving on from the incident. Victims are also concerned that making a report will cause them to lose their privacy, subject them to unwanted scrutiny, and potentially mark them as weak. They worry that their career advancement will be disrupted.
· Second, when the perpetrator resides in the same unit as the victim, sexual assault sets up a potentially destructive dynamic that can rip units apart. The bond of trust is broken, and when the perpetrator is in a position of authority, victims feel isolated, exploited, and powerless.
· Third, research has found that a history of any kind of assault doubles the risk of posttraumatic stress symptoms when the victim is exposed to combat. We also know that military sexual assault victims are also at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. These psychological problems – these “invisible wounds” – have insidious effects that disrupt lives, families, and military units. Long-term physical effects can include disabilities that impact a person’s ability to work, gastrointestinal health, and pain disorders.
Research shows that making a report is the primary means whereby victims access medical care and other support. In 2005, the Department launched a policy to encourage victims to report the crime. The Department offers two reporting options: Restricted and Unrestricted Reporting. The addition of Restricted Reporting as an option was critical first step in our program. Restricted Reporting allows victims to confidentially access medical care and advocacy services to heal their wounds and maintain their privacy by not having to report their victimization to their commander or law enforcement. Restricted Reporting is having the desired effect. By the end of FY11, the Department had received 5,245 Restricted Reports since the option was made available in 2005. We believe that number represents 5,245 victims who would have not otherwise come forward to access care had it not been for the Restricted Reporting option. In addition, 15 percent of those victims who made a Restricted Report converted to an Unrestricted Report, allowing us the potential to hold those offenders appropriately accountable.
New Enhancements and Expansion of the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program
In recent months we have expanded or implemented several new initiatives that will further support our victims and encourage prevention.
Military Rule of Evidence 514
Recently the Uniform Code of Military Justice was amended to further institutionalize victim privacy. In December 2011, the President signed an Executive Order that added Military Rule of Evidence (MRE) 514 into military law.  MRE 514 is a privilege that took effect on January 12 of this year to protect the communications between a victim and a victim advocate when a case is handled by a military court. This rule allows victims to trust that what is shared with these helping professionals will remain protected. The privilege fills an important gap that once allowed DoD victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators to be compelled to testify about their communications with victims. We believe MRE 514 is an invaluable contribution to the climate of confidence we are building.
DoD Safe Helpline
The Department is also reaching out to victims with a new initiative that was launched last year. In April 2011, the Department launched DoD Safe Helpline as a crisis support service for adult Service members of the DoD community who are victims of sexual assault. Available 24/7 worldwide, users can “click, call or text” for anonymous and confidential support. The Safe Helpline is owned by the Department and operated by the non-profit Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, through a contractual agreement with DoD SAPRO. Safe Helpline has a robust database with a wide-range of military and civilian services available for referral. The database also contains SARC contact information for each Military Service, the National Guard, and the Coast Guard as well as referral information for legal resources, chaplain support, healthcare services, the Departments of Labor and VA, including VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, Military OneSource, and 1,100 civilian rape crisis affiliates. In its first year of operation, from April 2011 to April 2012, the Safe Helpline had more than 36,000 unique visitors to its website. Additionally, the DoD Safe Helpline assisted more than 2,700 individuals through its online and telephone hotline sessions and texting referral services. Please note that website visitors and the people helped are not filing reports of sexual assault. Rather, they are confidentially accessing information and finding out about services available to them.
While we designed this service as a crisis hotline, we are finding that many of our service users are talking to us not only about events that just occurred, but also about incidents that occurred several months or even years ago. Given this opportunity for additional assistance, Safe Helpline has expanded its services through the launch of a mobile site and an app that can be downloaded for the iPhone, iPad, and devices with Android operating systems. The mobile site offers all the functionality of the standard website, but packages the content into a format that is easily displayed on a smart phone. The Safe Helpline app gives members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault access to resources and tools to help manage the short-and long-term effects of sexual assault. The app helps users create a plan that is right for them, from exercises that aid in reducing stress to tools to help them transition to civilian life. They can even customize plans and exercises so they can refer back to them at any time. The app is available in the Apple App Store or the Android Market.
DoD Safe Helpline Services for Transitioning Service Members
In order to help our transitioning Service members, we are working to provide a continuum of care with VA for our Service members who have experienced sexual assault. We launched the Safe Helpline Transitioning Service Members (TSM) enhancements on 1 June 2012.
TSMs seeking assistance following a sexual assault may be either unaware of or overwhelmed by the options and resources available to them upon leaving the military. TSMs seeking benefits related to an assault often are dealing with much more than paperwork. They may face concerns over confidentiality, privacy, and stigma. Safe Helpline offers an anonymous, confidential service that provides a safe space to discuss what options are best suited to their needs.
SAPRO collaborated with VA and Department of Labor to streamline pertinent information for military sexual assault victims via the SHL. Through leveraging Safe Helpline’s existing infrastructure, the Department is able to present clear and easily accessible information on counseling, benefits determinations, transitions, and employment, which may enable them to reach out for long-term support upon leaving the military. By bridging the gap from DoD to VA for sexual assault victims, we provide a continuum of care from active duty to veteran. TSM resources are easily accessible through the Safe Helpline via telephone, text, safehelpline.org, and through the Safe Helpline app.
DoD-wide Victim Assistance Standards
As we improve our assistance to victims of sexual assault, we are sharing these important lessons with other programs within the Department. Last year, DoD SAPRO worked with the Military Services and other DoD offices to improve the effectiveness and standardization of response to victims of all crimes. The DoD Working Group on Victim Assistance, led by DoD SAPRO, and comprised of victim assistance-related offices at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) level and Military Service representatives, was established in January 2011, to explore opportunities for achieving efficiencies, improvements, and standardization in victim assistance.
The DoD Working Group determined that standards for victim assistance were needed across the Department. The DoD Working Group drafted standards that establish a foundational level of assistance for victims of crime and harassment across the military community, regardless of DoD program or physical location. These standards are intended to be consistent with those established by national victim assistance organizations and also incorporate the unique needs of the military community. In addition, the DoD Working Group drafted a charter for a senior-level Victim Assistance Leadership Council to promote efficiencies, coordinate victim assistance-related policies, and assess the implementation of victim assistance standards across the Department’s victim assistance-related programs. We are now working to codify these victim assistance standards into Department policy.
It is also important that victims get the best medical care possible. Sexual assault victims receiving assistance from DoD have always had an option to receive a general medical examination or a Sexual Assault Forensic Examination, or “SAFE,” that recovers evidence of sexual assault for later use in legal proceedings. However, recent improvements in laboratory capabilities and examination procedures required we update the Department’s SAFE kit. For this reason, the Department called together civilian and military experts to improve the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination kit, the kit’s instructions, and the DD Form 2911 – the SAFE Report. These updates were deployed to the field last year and better align the Department’s procedures with national standards recommended by the Department of Justice.
SARC and Victims Advocates Certification Program
Encouraging victim reporting is just one way that the Department is building a climate of confidence – a climate where victims know they will be supported and treated fairly with dignity and respect. When we created our policy in 2005, we established the framework for a coordinated, multidisciplinary response system modeled after the best practices in the civilian community. At the heart of our sexual response system are the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and Victim Advocates. Service members worldwide have access to a 24 /7 response. Because the SARC and Victim Advocate play such an important role in the SAPR program, we have recently moved to professionalize these positions by designing a certification process. Once finalized, the proposed certification program will consist of credentialing that meets national standards, a competencies framework, and training oversight that will help us standardize the assistance provided to sexual assault victims. This certification process will also professionalize roles within the SAPR program and ensure all victims receive assistance from a certified SARC or SAPR Victim Advocate.
Expanded Document Retention
SARCs and Victim Advocates work with victims to help them decide whether to make a Restricted or Unrestricted Report. To ensure that victims make an educated decision in which they are fully informed of their choices, we developed the Victim Reporting Preference Statement (the DD Form 2910) to explain their reporting options. The completed DD Form 2910 is an important record by which the Department documents the victim’s report of sexual assault and which of the reporting options he or she selected. In each case, the SARC or Victim Advocate emphasizes that the victim should keep a copy of the DD 2910 in their personal files. This recommendation, to keep the completed DD 2910, is also noted on the bottom of the form.
However, we know that not every individual can keep track of this important document over the course of a military career. We want to ensure victims of sexual assault have access to this and other documents that may be helpful to them. For example, such documents may be needed to establish a Service-connected disability should they suffer lasting effects from the crime. Consequently, the Department issued a Directive Type Memorandum in December 2011 that mandates increased retention time for this and other sexual assault records. For records that pertain to Unrestricted Reports, including investigative documentation, the SAFE report, and the victim’s Reporting Preference Statement, documents will be kept for 50 years.
For Restricted Reports, we also expanded retention times. We expanded retention time for the SAFE kit and associated documentation from one year to five years. As I noted before, a victim making a Restricted Report of sexual assault may convert to an Unrestricted Report at any time. However, at the one-year point following a Restricted Report, the SARC will contact the victim and inform him or her that the SAFE kit and documentation will be available for an additional four years should he or she wish to convert the report. SARCs will also keep a hard copy of the DD Form 2910 – the Reporting Preference Statement – in Restricted Reports for five years.
Expedited Transfer Option
Victims of sexual assault are also informed by the SARC that they now have the option to request a permanent or temporary transfer from their assigned command or base, or to a different location within their assigned command or base. Victims making an Unrestricted Report may make such a request to their commanding officer and must receive an answer within 72 hours. If the victim’s commanding officer denies the request for transfer, the victim may appeal this decision to the first general or flag officer in their chain of command, who again has 72 hours to provide a response. Procedures for this new expedited transfer option were issued to the Services in a Directive Type Memorandum in December 2011. The Services were also directed in this memorandum to make every reasonable effort to minimize disruption to the normal career progression of a Service member who reports that he or she is a victim of sexual assault, and to protect victims from reprisal or threat of reprisal for filing a report.
Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database
The Department believes that comprehensive data collection and analysis is vital to policy analysis and program implementation. The Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database (DSAID) received its operating authority in March 2012. The Air Force and National Guard Bureau received training earlier this year and are now actively entering cases into the system. The Marine Corps began using the system on July 1. The Navy SARCs are currently being trained on DSAID and will begin using the system August 1, 2012. We are currently working to interface with the Army’s existing data systems and expect DSAID to be fully implemented by the end of August – which is on the schedule that we have been reporting to Congress since January 2010. DSAID has two primary functions: standardization of reporting of sexual assault and managing victim care. Once we have full implementation, we expect that our ability to analyze sexual assault data will be greatly enhanced. In addition, the Victim Reporting Preference Statement (the DD Form 2910) for Unrestricted Reports will be uploaded to DSAID, so they can be maintained for 50 years.
Pre-command Training for Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders
Changing our culture to achieve our goals involves prevention as well as accountability. One of the methods we are employing is oversight assessments. In January, the Secretary of Defense directed that we conduct a review of pre-command and senior enlisted leader Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) training to identify strengths and areas for improvement. DoD SAPRO visited pre-command and senior enlisted leader training conducted by the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force and reviewed Army’s newly developed Sexual Harassment / Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program training support package for senior enlisted leaders that will be deployed in Summer 2012. DoD SAPRO training experts, subject matter experts, and Service representatives evaluated both the method of delivery of SAPR training, as well as the content of the training, to identify strengths and areas for improvement. SAPRO identified a number of practices the Military Services should continue in their SAPR training for commanders. SAPRO has developed a number of recommendations that are designed to build on the successful practices the Military Services have already put into place, will drive improvements in SAPR training for commanders, and will support the strategic goals of the Department’s SAPR program. These recommendations are currently before the Secretary of Defense for his consideration.
Sexual Assault Offense Withhold Policy
To advance accountability, one of the most recent changes in Department policy was directed by the Secretary of Defense in April of this year. Effective on June 28, 2012, the initial disposition of cases of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, and attempts to commit these crimes will be withheld from any officer who is below the O-6 level and who does not hold special court-martial convening authority. This means, commanders at the company or squadron level no longer have authority to decide the initial disposition of cases of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or associated attempts. In the past, victims have stated that they do not want to report because they believed the offender was more popular or more important to their commander than they were. The presumption was that unit commanders may be less likely to believe the victim and more likely to believe the offender. Now, disposition decisions for these very serious reports of sexual assault will be decided by someone above the level of the unit commander, a commander with greater experience, and senior officers more neutral in perception and in fact will make a reasoned decision.
In April, Secretary Panetta also directed a number of other new policies that we are now working to implement or standardize across the Services:
· Establishing “Special Victims Unit” capabilities within each of the Services, to ensure that specially trained investigators, prosecutors, sexual assault nurse examiners, SARCS, and victim-witness assistance personnel are available to assist with sexual assault cases;
· Requiring sexual assault policies be explained to all Service members within 14 days of their entrance on active duty;
· Allowing reserve and National Guard members who have been sexually assaulted while on active duty to remain in their active-duty status to obtain the treatment and support afforded to active-duty members;
· Requiring annual organizational climate assessments; and
· Mandating wider public dissemination of DoD resources, including information about the DoD Safe Helpline.
Challenges in Caring for Military Victims of Sexual Assault
We need your assistance in removing at least one barrier to victim care; that is state mandatory reporting laws.
Prior to the implementation of Restricted Reporting, victims could not access medical care or advocacy services without the involvement of law enforcement and command. Restricted Reporting is critical to reducing the barriers that prevent victims from accessing care in the military. Despite all of its benefits, Service members in a number of states, including California, do not have the option of Restricted Reporting if they wish to access medical care for a sexual assault. Victims cannot access private medical care and treatment either on or off base. Section 11160 of California’s Penal Code requires healthcare practitioners to make a report to law enforcement when a victim presents to them with an injury suspected to be from a criminal act. That report must include the victim’s name, whereabouts and a description of the person’s injury. There is no discretion allowed by the law on the part of a healthcare provider. Once the healthcare provider notifies civilian law enforcement, we cannot guarantee they will not notify military law enforcement. Once military law enforcement is aware of a sexual assault, it must investigate and command must be notified.
If our active duty members could make Restricted Reports in federally funded facilities, such as a VA Medical Center – no matter where it is located -- we believe this would allow us a wider variety of options to offer victims for care. We do not know how many more reports we would have received had the Restricted Reporting option been more available in California. Despite our efforts, no action has been taken to remove this important barrier to reporting. This is a legislative challenge we need help in resolving.
The Department of Defense has made significant progress since 2005 in assisting victims of sexual assault. However, much work remains. Our policy has changed substantially in the last two years since we last appeared before this committee and we are pleased that we have the personal attention of the Secretary of Defense, who has played an invaluable role in helping us push the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program forward.Thank you for your time and for the opportunity to testify today. I would be happy to answer your questions.
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 Executive Order 13593, effective on January 12, 2012.