Pentagon Needs Better Data on Domestic Abuse in the Military Community, Audit Finds

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Soldiers and families walk to raise domestic violence awareness, October 16, 2020.
Soldiers and families walk to raise domestic violence awareness, October 16, 2020. (U.S. Army/Spc. Jacob Wachob)

The Defense Department recorded more than 42,000 incidents of domestic abuse in its population from 2015 to 2019, but the real number is likely higher. That's because the data collected by the department is incomplete, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

By law, the DoD must collect and report data on incidents that meet its criteria for domestic abuse. But it fails to consistently collect information on all domestic abuse allegations and fails to substantiate many complaints, making it difficult for the Pentagon to understand the scope of the problem, GAO auditors told Congress in a report released earlier this month.

Of the more than 42,000 incidents of domestic abuse involving service members, spouses or partners from 2015 to 2019, 74% involved physical abuse, 22% were defined as emotional abuse, 4% were sexual abuse, and less than 1% was neglect, according to the report.

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While the DoD has broad definitions for the varying types of abuse and collects data on incidents that meet its criteria, it does not collect data on all allegations -- something it has been required to do by law since 1999 -- nor does it track actions taken by commanders in response to abuse allegations.

"DOD and the military services have taken steps to implement and oversee domestic abuse prevention and response activities, but gaps exist in key areas," wrote GAO analysts in the report. "As a result, commanders and senior enlisted advisors may not be aware of key responsibilities for domestic abuse prevention and response."

Domestic abuse and violence in the military have long been a concern among advocacy groups and members of Congress who have pushed for broader transparency from the DoD and justice for victims.

According to the GAO, the DoD has said that such abuse not only has "devastating personal consequences and societal costs," it is "incompatible with military values and reduces mission readiness."

The Pentagon defines domestic abuse as "a pattern of behavior resulting in emotional or psychological abuse, economic control, or interference with personal liberty that is directed toward a current or former spouse, a person with whom the abuser shares a child in common, or a current or former intimate partner with whom the abuser shares or has shared a common domicile."

Domestic violence, an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, is a subcategory of domestic abuse.

During the five-year study period, the Army had 17,289 recorded incidents of domestic abuse; the Air Force, 10,871; the Navy, 8,614; and the Marine Corps, 5,381.

The Army and Marine Corps saw declines in the number of reported incidents from 2015 to 2019, while reports remained steady in the Navy during the same time frame. The Air Force saw a jump in 2019, with the number of reports that year exceeding any of the preceding four.

According to the GAO report, the Army and Air Force maintained accurate data on allegations of domestic abuse. The Marine Corps could provide data only for 2015, 2018 and 2019, and the "domestic abuse incident data" that the Navy provided to the auditors "were not sufficiently reliable" for the purpose of the study.

For the research, which began in 2019, the auditors interviewed 68 survivors of domestic abuse; analyzed data and reviewed policies and guidance; spoke with DoD officials and representatives of the military services; and took sample information from 12 military installations.

During interviews, victims told the analysts that they faced challenges reporting their abuse and weren't aware of the resources available for making a report that could result in either a formal investigation or a private report.

The largest barrier cited by victims to reporting abuse was concern over their financial situations, since many military families have a single source of income -- the service member.

They also reported feeling that their allegations wouldn't be taken seriously, that filing a report would provoke their abuser and that leaders are often reluctant to pursue an investigation since it could hurt a service member's career.

More than half of those interviewed said the services should do more to ensure that those in the military community are aware of the services and options for reporting cases of domestic abuse.

Of the 68 interviewed, one reported having been abused for 25 years, 60 said they had reported the abuse to military or civilian law enforcement, and eight said they did not report the abuse.

The GAO made 32 recommendations to the services and DoD on improving their data collection and outreach on domestic abuse programs and resources for affected service members and families.

They also said the DoD should improve its processes for collecting data on all domestic abuse allegations and evaluate commanders' responsibilities for tracking domestic violence.

The services, they added, should ensure that personnel are aware of the laws and regulations regarding domestic abuse; provide improved guidance and training materials to installation commanders and senior enlisted leaders; and make sure that installation family advocacy offices have agreements with local civilian authorities to improve collaboration when allegations are made.

The DoD and the services concurred with all the recommendations.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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