The Department of the Air Force plans to expand oversight and add new training in a push to strengthen its domestic-violence prevention efforts, following a monthslong review of its support services for abuse survivors.

The Sept. 29 announcement, set to coincide with Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, is the Air Force’s latest attempt to reform how reports of abuse are handled in a system that critics say has much to do to adequately address the problem.

“There is no place in our Air Force and Space Force family for domestic violence or interpersonal violence in any form,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a press release. “We must do more to establish trust and build a foundation of respect, responsiveness and support for survivors of violence.”

In response to the 90-day review that launched in January, the Air Force said it will hire more victim advocates at its bases to support survivors and command teams, as well as additional civilian staffers in the department’s Family Advocacy Program headquarters.

A new steering group within Air Force headquarters, led by the Air Force’s civilian personnel chief and staffed by officials from the legal, security forces, medical and other communities, will meet quarterly to plan the department’s future domestic violence prevention and response strategy.

The changes include multiple efforts to bolster training for airmen across the ranks to better identify and address instances of abuse, such as an annual exercise to teach local communities how to respond and to better equip commanders to handle cases within their units.

The Air Force also plans to tweak its policies around how it handles aspects of domestic violence cases to mirror those of sexual assault.

“We listened to survivors and are deeply appreciative of the candid insights they provided,” Kendall said in the release. “Their candid perspectives have informed our efforts as we work to create more effective solutions to this heart-breaking issue.”

But multiple domestic violence survivors who spoke to Air Force Times said the changes don’t go far enough to stop abuse from happening or to prosecute perpetrators.

Carol Thompson, an attorney representing multiple victims of domestic abuse who are suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, noted in an email that the Air Force had pledged to take a closer look at potential administrative actions that could be taken in cases that don’t result in criminal prosecution.

“That is conspicuously missing from the recommendations made by the 90-day cross-functional review, and the decisions made by the Secretary,” Thompson wrote. “It shows the Air Force is less concerned with holding individuals accountable — a promise they have repeatedly made.”

Survivors believe the service can do more to protect victims from their abusers and to enforce restraining orders.

Critics say the Air Force fails to adequately track airmen who have faced allegations of domestic violence, potentially putting more people in harm’s way. They also argue that the Air Force has mishandled its own rules and processes in responding to domestic violence and can do more to consider how the policies themselves fall short.

The Pentagon said Oct. 3 it recorded nearly 15,500 reports of domestic abuse in fiscal 2022. About half of those met the department’s criteria for abuse, according to the Defense Department’s latest report on child abuse and neglect and domestic abuse in the military.

“For the fourth consecutive year, domestic abuse findings are mixed,” the Pentagon said.

The number of abuse allegations has trended down over the past decade, but Defense Department data showed those reports, including those confirmed as domestic abuse, have been rising again each year since 2020.

Fourteen people died as a result of domestic abuse in fiscal 2022, including incidents that involved five known abusers, the Pentagon said. Four victims had reported abuse in the past.

The report does not specify how many incidents of domestic violence occur in each branch of the military.

Nineteen troops in the Department of the Air Force, which includes airmen and Space Force guardians, faced court-martial for domestic violence under Article 128b of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in fiscal 2022, according to the Air Force’s online court docket. Fourteen were found guilty of at least one charge of domestic violence and five were acquitted.

More than a dozen upcoming domestic violence-related cases were listed on the docket as of Tuesday.

Air Force officials have launched myriad studies and initiatives in recent years in repeated attempts to curb abuse and harassment.

The service said last month that a six-month pilot program that aimed to make support resources more accessible to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of abuse led people to report incidents 100 days sooner than in the past.

The pilot ran from August 2022 to January 2023 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas; Vandenberg Space Force Base, California; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Misawa Air Base, Japan; and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

Officials found that bringing a range of advocacy, legal and religious support resources together made people more likely to seek them out, and reduced the number of times they needed to recount their story to various staffers to get help.

“The burden shouldn’t be on the victims and survivors to know where to find resources,” sexual assault and harassment response policy analyst Lisa Surette said in a Sept. 27 press release.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

In Other News
Load More