A disturbing new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that although there were 284 reported sexual assaults in hospitals and clinics operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) between 2007 and 2010, many of these never made their way to regional or central offices. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the were not reported to the VA Office of the Inspector General, as required by VA regulation. And the report adds that there is reason to believe that there are many other assaults that go unreported.
It’s no secret that rates of sexual assault in the military are unacceptably high, and that many reported cases go uninvestigated. But discussions of rape in the military mostly center around active servicepeople, not veterans. This report is a wake-up call about the fact that protection from sexual assault needs to be a priority after members of the military have become veterans and begin to seek care with the VA.
The assaults were mostly perpetrated by other patients; according to the report, “89 were patient-on-patient assaults, 85 were patient-on-employee assaults, 46 were employee-on-patient assaults, 15 were employee-on-employee assaults and 28 involved an unknown assailant attacking a patient.” This is an unsurprising finding, given that veterans entering a facility are often not screened for violence. The problem seems to be men assaulting patients of both genders: women were the victims in slightly over half the patient-on-patient cases. A woman was accused of assaulting a male patient in only one case.
The report, however, identified many issues in the way that VA facilities and police handled sexual assault. ”Factors that may contribute to the underreporting of sexual assault incidents include the lack of both a clear definition of sexual assault and expectations on what incidents should be reported,” the GAO explains, “as well as deficient [Veterans Health Administration] Central Office oversight of sexual assault incidents.”
The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) wrote a statement about the report, pointing out that “27.8 percent of U.S. women veterans have enrolled in the VA health care system, and those who recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq are turning to VA health care at unprecedented rates.” However, these women routinely receive a lower level of care than veterans who use other facilities. Unsurprisingly, the women who choose not to use the VA usually have access to private insurance.
Legislators seemed unnerved by the findings, as well they should. Jeff Miller, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said the report reminded him of “a 1950s prison system — lawlessness, lack of security and reporting, and outright disregard for human dignity.”
At least this means that politicians seem willing to act swiftly to improve safety in VA facilities. According to SWAN, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs has introduced H.R. 2074, a bill that would “require the VA to track all sexual assaults and to closely examine veterans that may pose a risk of committing sexual assault.” The committee will also hold a hearing next week to examine the findings.
In the meantime, though, you can add your voice to the many Care2 members who are telling the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to act decisively to correct the egregious lapses chronicled in this report. Sign the petition and tell Rep. Miller and the VA Committee to stop sexual assaults on veterans!
Photo from Lisa Norwood’s Flickr photostream.