Defense urged to create central domestic violence database

A nonprofit watchdog group is calling on the Defense Department to create a central database for domestic violence incidents involving military service members.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released a report last week criticizing the Pentagon's lack of effort in tracking and targeting domestic violence in the armed services.

Defense established a domestic violence initiative in 2000 after Congress included a requirement in that year's National Defense Authorization Act mandating a centralized repository of incidents, but CREW said progress has been slow and claims of domestic abuse have increased. Additionally, the department in 2007 closed the Family Violence Policy Office, which was in charge of implementing the congressional requirement for the database.

After submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for statistics on domestic violence in 2008, including the number of soldiers prosecuted, convicted and jailed for such crimes, CREW discovered that the four military branches do not maintain databases specifically tracking the outcomes of incidents. The Navy and Marine Corps keep records of general assault, while Defense could provide a spreadsheet only with the total number of officers and enlisted soldiers who received dishonorable discharges for bad conduct. The Army's records included crimes outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which does not differentiate domestic violence from assault.

A September 2010 Government Accountability Office report, which CREW cited in its report, found 8,223 incidents met criteria for domestic abuse in fiscal 2009, but this accounted solely for cases reported to the Army's Family Advocacy Program clinical offices, outside of the military and civilian judicial systems. Defense has a separate system for reporting abuse -- the Defense Incident-Based Reporting System -- but GAO found gaps and overlap in data from the two reporting systems.

The report concluded that without an oversight framework, Defense cannot assess its efforts to prevent and respond to domestic abuse. GAO recommended Defense should establish this framework to ensure its efforts are resulting in reduced violence.

Officials agreed with these recommendations; however, the department has not enacted any changes, saying it is exploring the best options for implementation.

According to Maj. Monica Matoush, a Defense spokeswoman, the department has determined that matching the data in the two separate systems for reporting domestic violence is not possible.

"With supportive counseling services and expanded reporting options, the Department of Defense is working hard to prevent domestic violence and protect victims," Matoush said in a statement. "Our military's leadership, from the top down, continues to ensure our service members and their families understand the importance of this issue, and what steps we are taking to stop domestic violence, protect victims and hold offenders accountable for their behavior."

Lack of funding also factors into the ability of the Family Advocacy Program to track the outcomes of domestic abuse cases. The program receives about $21 million annually, just enough to cover clinical costs, according to Dr. Renee Robichaux, FAP's social work programs manager, who spoke with CREW for the report. This makes the office unable to follow up on the results of court cases or keep data for analysis.

CREW's report emphasized the link between post-traumatic stress disorder and increased violence in the home. The military has focused more attention on the mental health of spouses and dependents, and continues to monitor the effects of PTSD on soldiers.

Deborah Gibbs, a senior analyst at Research Triangle Institute who has worked with the Army since 2003 researching patterns of family violence in relation to substance abuse, emphasized the complicated nature of PTSD and domestic violence.

"It's not a causal relationship," Gibbs said. "There are many factors that have been found to be part of that relationship. Many service members experience PTSD and don't experience family violence."

Kristina Kaufmann, an Army spouse and advocate for military families, said a key issue is changing the cultural perception of domestic violence, and she recommended education and awareness campaigns at the ground level to encourage spouses to step forward.

"One of the challenges with collecting data is the unwillingness for women to report or pursue action -- it's the same reason as civilian women," Kaufmann said. "If your husband gets charged, he could lose his rank or job."

Both Kaufmann and Gibbs said that even if reporting were to increase as Defense's database of information improved, the question of how to deal with domestic violence cases remains.

"The problems aren't going away," Gibbs said. "They just won't happen in the military with adequate treatment resources and if they aren't happening in the military world, then they aren't going to be better outside."

For their part, CREW officials hope the report will shed light on the issue.

"It serves as a reminder [that] it's a problem that hasn't been fixed," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for CREW.

Weismann said the organization plans to follow up with the congressional Armed Services committees and will continue to monitor Defense's efforts.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the name of the nonprofit watchdog group that released the report. It is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

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