Army to launch sexual-assault resource centers at six bases as a pilot program to improve victim services
Six Army bases were selected for a one-year pilot program that creates an additional location for soldiers to report sexual harassment and assault that will hold all the resources needed for personal recovery and prosecution, the service announced Wednesday.
The “fusion directorate” is part of the planned redesign of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, which was found by two recent independent reports to be failing the needs of soldiers who report these crimes. The directorate is a physical building that will include care providers, investigators and criminal prosecutors, “allowing them to maximize their efforts and keep victims better informed at each step of an emotional and complex process,” the Army said.
The program doesn’t replace other reporting mechanisms, but serves as an additional resource for soldiers that is outside of the chain of command, such as the SHARP hotline. However, it does not completely remove a soldier’s chain of command from the process, Army officials said Wednesday during a call with reporters.
“Soldiers and [Army] civilians must feel comfortable raising allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, quickly receive the care and services they need, and be treated with dignity and respect throughout the process,” said Lt. Gen. Gary M. Brito, the deputy chief of staff for the Army’s personnel office. He also serves as one of three chairpersons of the People First Task Force, which is leading efforts to redesign the SHARP program.
“The fusion directorate is designed to ensure that sexual-assault victims experience a supportive and compassionate response from a team of professionals working under the direct oversight of a senior commander,” he said.
Bases that will host the pilot program are Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Irwin, Calif., Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Sill, Okla. They are expected to open in early 2022. In addition, the Army Reserve will pilot a virtual fusion directorate for the 99th Readiness Division, located in New Jersey.
At each of the seven pilot sites, the director of the fusion directorate will report to the senior installation commander, increasing the level of oversight, the Army said.
“As we looked at the locations that were out there, we really wanted to get a broad variety of sizes and types of commands so that we can get the best overall assessment on Army-wide implementation,” said Col. Kelly L. Webster, deputy director of the People First Task Force.
These locations involve leadership of Army Materiel Command, Army Forces Command, Training and Doctrine Command and Army Service Component Command, as well as varying populations, to measure how the centers function within each type of base.
The Army National Guard is not participating in this pilot program, but it is being included in discussions of how it could be implemented, said Col. Erica Cameron, SHARP redesign leader.
“Right now they're looking at developing a state-based approach that will work with their specific circumstances,” she said.
Though the impetus for this redesign stems from the disappearance and death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, the base is not included in the pilot program. Before her death, Guillen was sexually harassed on base by a supervisor and informal reporting failed her, according to an administrative investigation into her time at Fort Hood and how all levels of her command chain managed her case.
Many of the recommendations on how to improve the SHARP program come from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee’s report, which was released in December 2020 and found soldiers did not have trust and confidence in the program, largely because of its ties to the chain of command.
Fort Hood has already begun to make a number of changes to its own SHARP program, including adding victim advocates, overhauling training and adding more oversight to the program. It wasn’t chosen for the new program because it would be difficult to determine whether the outcomes were caused by the new fusion center or the changes already in place.
“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,” Cameron said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in February a second 90-day independent review of the Defense Department’s handling of sexual harassment and assault. The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military offered many of the same recommendations as the Fort Hood report, but it went a step further and recommended the military completely remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.
Congress is poised to pass a measure that paves the way for this change in the pending 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. The Army said it believes this fusion center pilot program will segue into that change, should Congress act as expected.
When a soldier goes to a new fusion center to report a sexual assault as a restricted case, which does not seek criminal prosecution, the staff will only notify the chain of command that they have a victim in their unit, but not by name, Cameron said. These soldiers can continue to receive treatment and other recovery-related resources available to sexual-assault victims.
If the soldier chooses to make an unrestricted report, which does attempt to hold their perpetrator accountable, the chain of command receives all the same information that it would from any other method of reporting.
The program is based off on a similar one launched in 2014 that was never implemented Army-wide due to “shifting priorities and limiting resources at the time,” Cameron said.
She said they will use the lessons learned from the previous program as a starting point to develop metrics by the end of this month to track the progress of the new program. The data will allow senior leaders to determine whether the program should be expanded throughout the Army.
“Our metrics are going to focus on improving the accountability, transparency and efficiency for victims, she said. Trained response coordinators and victim advocates will gather information from victims about their experiences with the program to see whether it actually improved their experiences.
The Army will also gather information from the same people about their own experiences helping victims to determine whether it was an improvement. In the end, the goal is to have measured success before expanding it to the rest of the Army.
“It’s one of several initiatives that the Army has rolled out recently to help improve victim care and services,” Webster said. “By placing our people first, we strengthen the very foundation of the Army and readiness.”