Victims of sexual assault throughout the Defense Department may now report the attacks confidentially, part of a policy released yesterday that is intended to ensure the privacy of victims while encouraging them to pursue prosecution of their attackers.
The policy is one aspect of a department-wide overhaul of the way the military treats sexual assaults, a response to widespread problems with such attacks and a broad acknowledgment that the military was not doing enough to address them.
Previously, sexual assault investigations were not confidential, leaving accusers vulnerable to retaliation or ostracism. The new policy, which will take full effect by mid-June, creates a system intended to help victims get the health services and counseling they need while allaying the fear of coming forward with official accusations.
The military will have to hire and train employees to be confidential contacts for those who believe they have been sexually attacked. Even unit commanders will not be able to learn the details of a case unless the victim decides to push a criminal investigation. Officials believe the new reporting system will more accurately gauge the extent of sexual assaults because they expect more service members to report attacks if they know they will be protected.
"This policy change will encourage more victims of sexual assault to come forward and seek help, providing commanders with a better understanding of what's actually happening in their commands," David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon. "Although the department would prefer complete reporting of sexual assaults to activate both victim services and accountability actions, we believe our first priority needs to be for victims to be protected, to have them treated with dignity and respect, and to receive the medical treatment, care and counseling that they deserve."
Air Force Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, who has been heading a joint task force on sexual assault prevention and response since late last year, said she expects the number of reported attacks to rise under the new policy because studies have shown a significant amount of underreporting of the crime.
McClain believes the new process, which will assign a confidential adviser to work with each victim, will facilitate more criminal investigations as advisers build trust and encourage victims to hold their attackers accountable.
"We are hoping that then we will get the victim to that place to where they do feel that they are ready to report in the unrestricted sense and to initiate the investigative process, which will hold the offender accountable," she said.