Military Personnel:

DOD's and the Coast Guard's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Programs Face Implementation and Oversight Challenges

GAO-08-924: Published: Aug 29, 2008. Publicly Released: Aug 29, 2008.

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In 2004, Congress directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to establish a comprehensive policy to prevent and respond to sexual assaults involving servicemembers. Though not required to do so, the Coast Guard has established a similar policy. In response to congressional requests and Senate Report No. 110-77, GAO evaluated the extent to which DOD and the Coast Guard (1) have developed and implemented policies and programs to prevent, respond to, and resolve sexual assault incidents involving servicemembers; (2) have visibility over reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers; and (3) exercise oversight over reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers. To conduct this review, GAO reviewed legislative requirements and DOD and Coast Guard guidance; analyzed sexual assault incident data; and obtained through surveys and interviews the perspective on sexual assault matters of more than 3,900 servicemembers.

DOD and the Coast Guard have established polices and programs to prevent, respond to, and resolve reported sexual assault incidents involving servicemembers; however, implementation of the programs is hindered by several factors. GAO found that (1) DOD's guidance may not adequately address some important issues, such as how to implement its program in deployed and joint environments; (2) most, but not all, commanders support the programs; (3) required sexual assault prevention and response training is not consistently effective; and (4) factors such as a DOD-reported shortage of mental health care providers affect whether servicemembers who are victims of sexual assault can or do access mental health services. Left unchecked, these challenges can discourage or prevent some servicemembers from using the programs when needed. GAO found, based on responses to its nongeneralizable survey administered to 3,750 servicemembers stationed at military installations in the United States and overseas and a 2006 DOD survey, the most recent available, that occurrences of sexual assault may be exceeding the rates being reported, suggesting that DOD and the Coast Guard have only limited visibility over the incidence of these occurrences. At the 14 installations where GAO administered its survey, 103 servicemembers indicated that they had been sexually assaulted within the preceding 12 months. Of these, 52 servicemembers indicated that they did not report the sexual assault. GAO also found that factors that discourage servicemembers from reporting a sexual assault include the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip. Although DOD has established some mechanisms for overseeing reports of sexual assault, and the Coast Guard is beginning to do so, neither has developed an oversight framework--including clear objectives, milestones, performance measures, and criteria for measuring progress--to guide its efforts. In compliance with statutory requirements, DOD reports data on sexual assault incidents involving servicemembers to Congress annually. However, DOD's report does not include some data that would aid congressional oversight, such as why some sexual assaults could not be substantiated following an investigation. Further, the military services have not provided data that would facilitate oversight and enable DOD to conduct trend analyses. While the Coast Guard voluntarily provides data to DOD for inclusion in its report, this information is not provided to Congress because there is no requirement to do so. To provide further oversight of DOD's programs, Congress, in 2004, directed the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services to conduct an examination of matters relating to sexual assault in the Armed Forces. However, as of July 2008, the task force had not yet begun its review. Without an oversight framework, as well as more complete data, decision makers in DOD, the Coast Guard, and Congress lack information they need to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2010 Congress passed Public Law 111-281, "The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010," which required the Commandant of the Coast Guard to submit to Congress an annual report on the sexual assaults involving members of the Coast Guard. As of September 2011 GAO was in the process of following-up with the Congress to determine whether Congress took this action in response to a matter for congressional consideration included in GAO-08-924. The House of Representatives introduced and passed H.R. 2838 (Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2011), which included provisions that would require the Coast Guard to report sexual assault incident and program data. However, according to Representative Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Senate continues to delay action on this as well as the 2012 version of this legislation.

    Matter: To improve oversight of sexual assault incidents involving servicemembers in the Coast Guard, Congress may wish to consider requiring the Coast Guard to submit to Congress sexual assault incident and program data annually that are methodologically comparable to those required of DOD.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation, and, in March 2009, DOD noted in its Fiscal Year 2008 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military that its Joint Environments Working Group was examining DOD policy to determine if modifications were needed in order to effectively implement the program in joint and deployed environments. In April 2009, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Plans sent a memo to the Joint Staff containing the Working Group's guidance for revising future joint publications to address sexual assault prevention and response in joint environments. In June 2009, we met with a Joint Staff official who told us that they were using this guidance to revise its joint publication 1-0 and that until its revised publications are issued the interim guidance addressing program implementation is in effect.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to review and evaluate the department's policies for the prevention and response of sexual assault to ensure that adequate guidance is provided to effectively implement the program in deployed environments and joint environments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and, in March 2009, noted in its Fiscal Year 2008 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military that it examined program staffing as part of its fiscal year 2008 Policy Assistance Team visits. Additionally, in 2009, the Under Secretary of Defense for Plans testified that the Department had increased funding in its fiscal year 2010 budget to provide for 54 full-time positions in its sexual assault prevention and response programs. By undertaking this evaluation, DOD addressed our recommendation to review its program staffing.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to evaluate the military services' processes for staffing and designating key installation-level program positions, such as Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs), at installations in the United States and overseas, to ensure that these individuals have the ability and resources to fully carry out their responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2010, noted in its annual report on sexual assault in the military that during fiscal year 2009 DOD's Sexual Assault Advisory Council conducted site visits to review troop and commander training across the military services and that, based in part on GAO's recommendation, this review focused specifically on the military services' accession and commander training. The goals of those site visits were to determine how well the military services provided sexual assault prevention and response training in accordance with DOD requirements, to assess the quality of the training, to identify best practices and opportunities to refine DOD policy, and to provide immediate feedback to stakeholders. DOD's report also noted that other aspects of the department's sexual assault prevention and response training were reviewed during fiscal year 2009 as well, including training for Military Criminal Investigative Organizations, to ensure training requirements reflect the needs of law enforcement and military criminal investigators responsible for addressing issues and procedures applicable to sexual assault cases, and for trial counselors, to ensure training requirements reflect the needs of judge advocates who are responsible for addressing issues and procedures applicable to sexual assault cases. However, as we reported in February 2010 (GAO-10-215), while DOD has taken steps to evaluate the effectiveness of its training, DOD's training programs cannot be assessed because DOD's strategic plans and draft oversight framework do not contain measures against which to benchmark performance. As of September 2011, DOD's oversight framework was not yet complete. In January 2012, we met with SAPRO officials to discuss the status of performance measures for training. SAPRO officials told us that it conducted Policy Assistance Team (PAT) visits to assess the military services' sexual assault prevention and response training and found that the services had implemented training programs as required by DOD policy. As part of those visits, SAPRO also identified inconsistencies and deficiencies in the training programs and in response, worked to standardize and institutionalize training for each responder role. We agree that this constitutes an evaluation of sexual assault prevention and response training and consider this recommendation to be implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to review and evaluate sexual assault prevention and response training to ensure the military services are meeting training requirements and to enhance the effectiveness of the training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation, and subsequently, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs directed that a task force be chartered to determine the Military Health System's commitment and support of the department's sexual assault prevention and response programs. In November 2008, the Health Affairs Sexual Assault Task Force was chartered. The task force assessed (1) the overall policy guidance; (2) standard of care; (3) communication, collaboration, and continuity of care; (4) personnel, (5) training; and (6) supplies and materiel. In March 2009, the task force submitted a report detailing its assessment. The task force's report included a total of 14 recommendations with specific timeframes for implementing them--for example, surveying by September 2009 in-theater military treatment facilities regarding the availability of appropriate sexual assault prevention and response equipment and supplies and establishing a Military Health System Sexual Assault Health Care Integrated Policy Team, also by September 2009, to conduct a further, more detailed review of the issue. Having taken these steps, we believe DOD was response to our concerns and has taken an important step towards ensuring that servicemembers who are victims of sexual assault receive the care they need.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to systematically evaluate and develop an action plan to address any factors that may prevent or discourage servicemembers from accessing mental health services following a sexual assault.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and, as we reported in GAO-10-215, has also taken a variety of steps to emphasize support for and to further develop its sexual assault prevention and response programs. For example, in fiscal year 2008, representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military services visited selected military installations to assess, among other things, the extent to which commanders' company and field grade officers' support sexual assault prevention and response programs. OSD found that while most program personnel had demonstrable support from their command, command support of sexual assault prevention and response programs varied from installation to installation, and stronger command support of the program was required. OSD further reported that it is working with its stakeholders to address its findings.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the sexual assault prevention and response program has the strong support of military commanders and other senior leaders necessary for implementation, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to emphasize to all levels of command their responsibility for supporting the program, and review the extent to which commanders support the program and resources are available to raise servicemembers' awareness of sexual assault matters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation. While conducting follow-on work in 2010 GAO found that the Office of the Secretary of Defense drafted an oversight framework, but the framework only partially satisfied GAO's recommendation in that the framework did not contain all the elements that we previously recommended as necessary for effective strategic planning and program implementation-specifically,(1) long-term goals, objectives, and milestones; (2) performance goals and strategies to be used to accomplish goals; and (3) criteria for measuring progress. As of September 2011, DOD's oversight framework was not yet complete.In January 2012, we met with SAPRO officials to discuss the status of its efforts. SAPRO officials told us that they had not yet developed the performance measures that we recommended were necessary for conducting oversight.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to require the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to develop an oversight framework to guide continued program implementation and evaluate program effectiveness. At a minimum, such a framework should contain long-term goals, objectives, and milestones; performance goals; strategies to be used to accomplish goals; and criteria for measuring progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and, in March 2010, issued the Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2009 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, which implemented new disposition categories to better account for the outcomes of investigations and actions taken against subjects. These include, for example, data on the number of command actions precluded or declined for sexual assault charges for cases where there was insufficient evidence of any offense, the charge was unfounded, or the victim declined to participate in military justice action, among others. Having taken steps to implement these new disposition categories and establishing baseline data as part of its report for 2009, DOD has met the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the sexual assault prevention and response program in DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to improve the usefulness of the department's annual report as an oversight tool both internally and for congressional decision makers by establishing baseline data to permit analysis of data over time, and reporting data so as to distinguish cases in which (1) evidence was insufficient to substantiate an alleged assault, (2) a victim recanted, or (3) the allegations of sexual assault were unfounded.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and acknowledged, as we note in our report, that access to installation-level data by DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program office is critical for oversight and visibility over alleged sexual assault incidents and stated. In GAO-10-215, we reported that DOD they will not collect such data until they have implemented a statutorily mandated centralized database to maintain these data. As of September 2011, DOD's database was not yet operational. In January 2012, we met with SAPRO officials who stated and provided documentation that they are collecting installation-level data, and they are using these data to conduct trend analyses. Further, SAPRO said that while recently collected data will not be imported into its Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database (DSAID) once it becomes operational, it will maintain these data and manually incorporate them into future trend analyses. Because SAPRO will use installation-level data that was collected prior to its implementation of DSAID, DOD has implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the military services' sexual assault prevention and response programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to provide installation-level incident data to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office annually or as requested to facilitate analysis of sexual assault-related data and better target resources over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and, from August 11-15, 2008, the task force held its first open meeting.

    Recommendation: To help facilitate the assessment and evaluation of DOD's sexual assault prevention and response program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services to begin its examination immediately, now that all members of the task force have been appointed, and to develop a detailed plan with milestones to guide its work.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard concurred with our recommendation and, in a December 2010 letter to members of Congress and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, noted that a Coast Guard fiscal year 2009 Manpower Resource Analysis of its field positions performing primary Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) duties recommended the addition of 16 additional positions. During fiscal year 2010, three such positions were added, and additional positions have been requested as part of normal resource proposal process. Also in fiscal year 2010, a Headquarters position was re-located to the Coast Guard Academy as a dedicated SARC position. Having taken these steps, we believe the Coast Guard has implemented our recommendation and taken an important step to improve the implementation of its sexual assault prevention and response program.

    Recommendation: In order to improve implementation and enhance oversight of the Coast Guard's sexual assault prevention and response program, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should evaluate its processes for staffing key installation-level program positions, such as the Employee Assistance Program Coordinator (EAPC), to ensure that these individuals have the ability and resources to fully carry out their responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard concurred with our recommendation and, in December 2010, a copy of its Plan of Action and Milestones was provided to members of Congress and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Coast Guard's plan specifies, for 10 separate long-term goals or objectives, such things as its strategies to achieve these; milestones; criteria for measuring progress, and performance goals. Examples include the long-term goals or objectives of fostering a climate of victim support and safety, ensuring that program coordinators possess the education and background to fulfill their responsibilities, and compiling annual sexual assault data in such a way to parallel that which is required of the Department of Defense. Having taken these steps, we believe the Coast Guard has implemented our recommendation and taken an important step to help ensure the effective implementation of its sexual assault prevention and response program.

    Recommendation: In order to improve implementation and enhance oversight of the Coast Guard's sexual assault prevention and response program, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop an oversight framework to guide continued program implementation and evaluate program effectiveness. At a minimum, such a framework should contain long-term goals, objectives, and milestones; performance goals; strategies to be used to accomplish goals; and criteria for measuring progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

 

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