House Subcommittee Looks to CALCASA for Guidance

Today, in the first House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel hearing in the 111th Congress, experts on the issues of sexual violence victim services testified regarding how the military responds to victims of sexual assault, and how those services can progress. Among those tapped for guidance was Robert Coombs, Director of Public Affairs for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA).
During his comments, Coombs referenced a number of initiatives taken up by the Department of Defense and branches of the military, with the purpose of enhancing victim services and offender accountability. On the issue of victim reporting, he indicated the Coalition’s support for the military’s restricted reporting policy allowing service members to anonymously report sexual assaults and receive support services. “Restricted reporting is likely to increase the number of reports you see coming from the military. While we hate to see more victims in any context, the fact that they are coming forward, being heard and most importantly, receiving services and support—those are positive outcomes for armed services.”
Coombs also acknowledged the tremendous growth of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO)  in the Department of Defense in victim-centered approaches to sexual violence. He told Congressional members: “Remember, civilian victim advocates have had the benefit—and responsibility—of three decades of victim advocacy. For an office that got it’s orders less than 5 years ago, they have come a very long way and have done an outstanding job. There is still much, much more work to do.”
Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee, questioned civilian and military experts on the effectiveness of advocacy and support efforts for victims of sexual assault in the military. She noted: “The incidents of sexual assault and the stories of the lack of support for the victims are unacceptable,” said Davis. “The questions we need to ask are, ‘Has enough been done? What more can we do?’  Our servicemembers deserve better.  These hearings will look closely at efforts of prevention of sexual assault in the military, support and advocacy for victims, and the prosecution of cases of sexual assault.”
In addition to victims’ advocates and policymakers, the subcommittee heard from Laura Watterson who was sexually assaulted in 2001 by a fellow service member while on active duty in the Air Force.  Watterson gave powerful and emotional testimony about what she had to endure after the assault.  In particular, she noted that, while the trauma of her assault was devastating, even more devastating was the way she was treated following the assault.
Getting servicemembers to report such incidents is still a challenge, sometimes due to apprehensions about what follows an assault.  In 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that factors that discourage servicemembers from reporting a sexual assault including the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip.  In 2007, there were 2,688 reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers.  Of those reports, the military completed a total of 1,955 criminal investigations.