Most reports by civilians of sexual assault go unrecorded in Defense Department database
By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: February 20, 2021
WASHINGTON — When a Defense Department civilian employee reports a sexual assault by a civilian colleague, the incident is excluded from a Pentagon database. This information gap needs to be filled, says a new federal watchdog report.
The data deficit renders the vast majority of cases — perhaps as many as 97% — largely invisible and compounds a larger, national problem of unreported sexual violence.
Pentagon data does not include statistics on sexual harassment and assault for most of the civilian workforce. With a nonmilitary workforce of almost 900,000, the Defense Department employs more civilians — by far — than any other government organization. The department has more civilian employees than four states have residents.
Defense officials are not consistent in the way they deal with civilian employees who report that they have been sexually assaulted. Assault reports, except those from Air Force employees, are not included in the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database if they are within the continental United States — where most Defense Department civilians work.
"While employees may not report all incidents for a variety of reasons, DOD also lacks visibility over those incidents that have been reported," said a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week.
The department's policy on reporting sexual assault cases allows vast categories of people to be excluded from the data, including those where both the target and the offender are DoD civilians working in the continental 48 states.
Lack of reporting data leads to lack of support.
"Only DOD civilian employees who are stationed or performing duties outside the continental United States. . . are eligible for DOD-provided sexual assault support services," the GAO said, citing Pentagon policy.
Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said by email that civilian employees are provided additional support overseas, "where such services may not be accessible due to limited local resources, language barriers, or other limitations. Unlike their counterparts overseas, civilian employees in the United States are able to obtain services in their local communities."
Defense officials apparently think that Alaska is overseas and that Hawaii is resource- or language-limited.
Pentagon records show there were 370 civilian employee reports of sexual assault from fiscal years 2015 through 2019, and 199 civilian employee alleged offenders, according to the report: "However, these data do not include all incidents of sexual assault reported over this time period."
What an understatement.
DoD estimated about 2,500 civilian staffers experienced work-related sexual assault in fiscal 2017, according to the report. If the 2,500 approximates the annual number of assaults for the five-year period, the Pentagon's data misses about 97% of civilian assault cases.
Defense officials are "not required to collect data and report on alleged sexual assaults against civilian employees allegedly perpetrated by persons who are not Service members, as part of its sexual assault prevention and response program," Lawrence wrote, adding the department plans to "capture reports from these additional categories of civilian employees" as GAO recommended.
But not soon enough for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
She said sexual assault is a pervasive problem throughout the Department of Defense — not just with service members. "It is deeply disturbing that the DoD is only tracking roughly 3% of sexual assault cases among civilian employees — failing to support and protect far too many civilian survivors," Gillibrand said by email.
The Pentagon generally agreed with 19 GAO recommendations and is taking steps to address them, it said in a letter to the watchdog agency on Jan. 19, the last full day of the Trump administration.
GAO recommended the department track all reports of civilian work-related sexual assaults, enhance anti-harassment programs for civilians and request any needed congressional action to facilitate the ability of civilian employees to make restricted reports of sexual assault. Restricted reports are confidential disclosures that do not lead to official investigations.
Giving credit where due, GAO noted that "incidents of sexual harassment and assault in the military have generated sustained congressional and media attention for nearly 2 decades, and the Department of Defense (DOD) has taken significant steps to respond to such incidents."
Yet, limited Pentagon guidance and "incomplete tracking continue to limit its visibility over such complaints," GAO added.
Invisibility adds to the reluctance of sexual assault victims to report cases. GAO said reasons cited by civilian employees for not reporting "included, among others, that they wanted to forget about the incident and move on, they did not think anything would be done, and they did not want more people to know."
Nationally, most sexual assaults are not reported, according to the Justice Department.
"The Department of Defense's inability to comprehensively track the extent to which civilian employees have been subjected to sexual assault or harassment in the workplace is extremely troubling," said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing Pentagon workers. "Without such data, federal agencies are unable to effectively address incidents as they occur or take steps to prevent future incidents."
"This lack of accountability," he added, "certainly has had a chilling effect on the department's civilian workforce being willing to report their own experiences."