Army to Open Centers For Reporting Sexual Assault, Harassment
The seven “fusion directorates” will be designed to preserve privacy and improve access to care.
The Army will open seven centers for sexual assault and harassment survivors in a bid to improve reporting, care, and justice, service officials said Wednesday.
Dubbed “fusion directorates,” the centers will open on six active-component bases (plus one virtual center for reservists) next March and run for a one-year pilot effort, said Col. Kelly Webster, deputy director of the People First Task Force, created in December to implement recommendations made by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee.
The new centers are part of the Army’s effort to redesign its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, program and overhaul how the service handles harassment and sexual assault.
The aim is to boost “accountability, transparency, and efficiency by coordinating all victim response elements, including victim advocates, medical care providers, law enforcement investigators, and criminal prosecutors” under one roof, said Col. Erica Cameron, who led the task force’s effort to redesign the SHARP program.
“By synchronizing, and in some cases co-locating, these support services, either physically or virtually, it will be easier for victims to get the help they need and empower them to navigate what can be an emotional and complex process starting from when they make an initial report through case resolution and long-term care and recovery,” Cameron said.
Currently, soldiers can go to their brigade or installation sexual-assault-response coordinator or victim advocate to submit a report and get services. There is also a Defense Department hotline that survivors can call to find help. The fusion directorate will be an additional reporting resource for soldiers to use if they choose.
The directorate concept is also meant to be adaptable to any future changes to federal law or DOD policy, Webster said. Several members of Congress have been trying to pass legislation to address military sexual assault and harassment, including in the 2022 budget authorizations.
Pilot fusion directorates will open next March at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Irwin, California; Fort Riley, Kansas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Army Reserve will also have a “virtual” fusion directorate for the 99th Readiness Division at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Texas’ Fort Hood, where Spc. Vanessa Guillén was murdered last year by a fellow soldier, was not selected to participate because it is already undergoing several changes, Cameron said. An Army investigation later found that Guillén had twice reported being sexually harassed by another soldier, but her supervisor and other officials failed to report the harassment up the chain of command.
“Because there's a lot going on, it's really hard at Fort Hood to be able to attribute any kind of outcomes specifically back to the change in the fusion directorate itself. So, while we recognize that Fort Hood would have been a good location, it would have been really hard to take lessons from that specific location,” she said.
The National Guard is involved in the concept’s development but will not establish their own fusion directorate because of the complexity related to their Title 32 status and the different laws in each state and territory they operate in, Cameron said. They are developing a state-based approach to the concept that will address their situations.
Each location’s director will report to the senior commander at the installation to increase the level of oversight, according to the release. Cameron said installations will be given a guide on how to protect the privacy and confidentiality of soldiers who visit the new directorates.
“There's specific guidance in there about how the facility should be laid out, that the pilot locations should be thinking about how they route people in and out of buildings,” she said. For example, “what kind of physical barriers to make sure that there's no interaction between those individuals who can receive restricted and unrestricted reporting.”
Commanders will still oversee their SHARP programs and be informed if a soldier in their organization has reported an incident, Cameron said.
“And they still retain their [Uniform Code of Military Justice] authorities. But it is designed to make sure, you know, this is a victim-centric approach. We want them to have a facility, a location, where they can go to where they feel comfortable talking to someone and getting the help that they need,” she said.
Webster was also optimistic that placing the directorates outside soldiers’ unit areas will reduce the likelihood that they might face retaliation for reporting that they were assaulted.
Data from a 2015 pilot program for a SHARP resource directorate will provide the initial metrics for the fusion directorate, Cameron said. The previous pilot was not extended Army-wide because of “some shifting priorities and limited resources at the time.” One of the lessons from that pilot was that all support providers for survivors should coordinate and share information.
The task force will collect feedback from survivors via their advocates to get a sense of their experience with the directorate. They’ll also be working with the SHARP personnel and responders to gather feedback. Best practices will then be gathered quarterly and provided to the rest of the Army, Cameron said.
In May, the Army began to require sexual harassment investigations to be handled by an officer outside the brigade. The service also restructured its Criminal Investigations Division and placed it under a civilian director.
Sexual assault is an underreported crime, both in the military as well as in the civilian population. In fiscal 2018, for example, the Defense Department received 6,053 reports from troops who said they had been sexually assaulted in the past year, but the actual number of assaults was estimated to be around 20,500, according to an appendix of the 2020 annual report.
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