Defense officials aren’t able to get a full picture of the level of domestic abuse in the military, because they’re not meeting all the requirements of the law in reporting the incidents, according to a new report from government auditors who conducted a sweeping, 21-month review.

While DoD and the services have made strides in implementing and overseeing prevention and response programs, there are still gaps, according to auditors with the Government Accountability Office, in a report required by Congress released Thursday.

There were more than 40,000 incidents of domestic abuse involving service members, spouses or intimate partners in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, according to an analysis of the military services’ data conducted by the GAO. Of those incidents, 74 percent were physical abuse.

But those incidents represented only those that met the DoD criteria for domestic abuse. DoD hasn’t collected accurate data for all domestic abuse allegations received, including those that don’t meet the DoD criteria for domestic abuse, as is required by law, the auditors found. And this data give DoD better visibility over actions taken by commanders to address domestic violence.

And other research in the report, such as interviews with 68 survivors of domestic abuse, chaplains, legal and others, indicate that some victims have had problems reporting their abuse, and there are some inconsistencies in the installations’ screening of the reports to determine whether they meet DoD’s criteria for domestic abuse.

Defense officials agreed with the auditors’ 32 recommendations, and described actions that are under way or planned to improve their prevention, response and oversight. Officials are in the process of revising some family advocacy guidance, that will address some recommendations. In addition, officials agreed to explore other recommendations such as developing a quality assurance process for reporting accurate data; and developing a communications plan to increase awareness of different reporting options and resources for abuse victims.

Because they don’t collect data on all domestic abuse allegations, “DoD is unable to assess the scope of alleged abuse and its rate of substantiation,” the auditors stated. DoD hasn’t collected comprehensive data about the number of allegations of domestic violence, which has been required by law since 1999, and data on actions taken by commanders in response to those allegations.

Domestic violence is a subcategory of different types of domestic abuse that constitute criminal offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Improving collection of the data “would allow DoD to determine the incidence of domestic violence, the rate that domestic violence allegations received are substantiated for command action, and the number and types of associated actions that are taken,” auditors stated.

Domestic abuse in the military has been a concern among lawmakers and advocates for more than 20 years, and lawmakers have pushed for the military to hold offenders accountable.

“Domestic abuse can result in devastating personal consequences and societal costs, and according to DoD is incompatible with military values and reduces mission readiness,” auditors noted.

Besides the issues with data collection and reporting, auditors identified gaps in DoD’s and the services’ implementation and oversight of actions in response to reports of domestic abuse; inconsistencies in screening of abuse reports, and gaps in training for key personnel such as commanders and senior enlisted advisers on their responsibilities in responding to these allegations.

In their research, conducted from September, 2019 to May, 2021, auditors interviewed 68 domestic abuse survivors; interviewed DoD and service officials, including legal, law enforcement, family advocacy, medical, chaplains and others; analyzed data, policies and guidance; assessed documents from a “nongeneralizable” sample of 20 military installations such memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement officials. They also listened by phone to each service’s Incident Determination Committee process, where each installation determines whether an incident meets DOD’s criteria for domestic abuse—at a total of 12 installations, three per military service.

The auditors issued 32 recommendations to DoD and the services to help them “improve their ability to consistently identify instances of abuse and provide available safety measures and resources to servicemembers and families affected by abuse.”

Digging into the screening decisions being made about the incidents, GAO auditors found “the military services perform limited monitoring of installation incident-screening decisions, and therefore lack reasonable assurance that all domestic abuse allegations are screened in accordance with DoD policy.”

Among the 68 military-affiliated survivors of domestic abuse, the minimum amount of time the abuse had occurred was one year; the longest amount of time being abused was 25 years. Of the 68 survivors, 60 said they had reported the abuse to the military or to civilian law enforcement, and 8 said they had not reported the abuse to the military or to civilian law enforcement.

Other findings:

• 59 survivors said they experienced barriers to reporting the abuse. The most common barriers cited were being dependent on the abuser for financial resources; feeling their report wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously; concern about the impact to the abuser’s career; and fearing retaliation from the abuser.

• Asked about their motivation for reporting the abuse, the most common reasons the victims cited were protecting their children, fear for their own safety, and escalating abuse.

• 8 of the 68 survivors interviewed said they tried to report the abuse, but believed no action was taken. Some survivors described feeling ignored or not taken seriously, or that the person they reported the incident to tried to defend the actions of their abuser. In some cases, survivors described negative actions that resulted from these attempts to report, such as being ridiculed by members of their abuser’s command or unit.

• The survivors described a range of responses to their reports of domestic abuse from the command, including senior enlisted advisers. Some survivors described positive actions, such as issuing a protective order or taking disciplinary action against the alleged abuser, while others said the command took no action, or took an action that was negative for the survivor or positive for the alleged abuser.

• Chaplains have varying degrees of training in responding to domestic abuse, and the survivors described a wide variety of responses. For example, one survivor said a chaplain provided commissary gift cards to ease the financial burden, and another said the chaplain helped keep the abuser out of the house while the survivor prepared to leave. But another survivor reported being deterred from reporting the abuse to others because of the chaplain’s lack of action or support. One chaplain advised “thinking hard before reporting abuse, because of the potential effect on the service member’s career,” the auditors reported.

Chaplains also reported varying degrees of confidence in their family advocacy program. “Chaplains at one installation told us they would hesitate to refer a victim to FAP because they are not confident FAP services will result in a positive outcome,” the auditors wrote. “Similarly, although some chaplains stated they would share information about FAP and encourage victims to self-refer, others stated they had more confidence referring servicemembers to other resources, such as financial education or substance abuse counseling.”

The auditors recommended that DoD take steps to specify learning objectives or content requirements for chaplain training on domestic abuse. Defense officials will look at the feasibility of coordinating with the military departments’ chaplain corps to do this, according to the DoD response.

Among other recommendations:

• DoD should take steps to improve the guidance and process for submitting reports on domestic abuse allegations, including those that don’t meet DoD’s criteria for abuse, and expand the analysis of those allegations;

• DoD should evaluate responsibilities for tracking domestic violence and related actions by commanders;

• The services should take steps to make sure regulations are clear: that violation of civilian protective orders is punishable under the UCMJ;

• The services should develop a process to consistently monitor how the allegations of domestic abuse are screened at installations;

• The services should provide additional guidance or sample training materials for installation-level commander and senior enlisted adviser domestic abuse training.

• The services should take steps to develop a process for installation family advocacy offices to enter into memorandums of understanding with local civilian authorities regarding investigating reports of domestic abuse.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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