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Lawmakers seek to protect military sex assault victims' advocates

Advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military are not capable of providing adequate protections for the victims they are assigned to look after, according to congressional lawmakers who are pushing for better sexual assault policies.

A recent letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, signed by Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, D-Mich., states that victim advocates are prevented from doing their jobs because of "roadblocks" that include banishment from military bases, contract cancellations, threats, limited victim access, reassignments and selective training. Victim advocates, who can be civilians or members of the military, intervene in situations of sexual assault between members of the military and family members living on bases.

Slaughter and Kilpatrick, both members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, said they do not believe that the Defense Department is complying with Congress' will in protecting victims of sexual assault through the advocates program, which was established in 1994.

"Time and again, Congress has sent the Pentagon a clear message - we want to protect military victims of sexual and domestic assault," Slaughter said in a statement. "We want them to have confidentiality; and we want victim advocates to be allowed to do their jobs."

The Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists military service members who are victims of sexual assault, says they are helping eight advocates who have been harassed, threatened or fired by the military for advocating on behalf of a victim.

"We would hope that if the military would fully implement the program, that they would provide protections for the victim advocates," said Anita Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation. "I think that if there is no privacy or confidentiality for the victim advocates, then that is the largest obstacle to [victims'] seeking help, because anything [the victim] tells them has the potential to become public information."

Sanchez said victim advocates' ethics prevent them from releasing private and confidential information, which can include everything from the name of the victim to the description of the incident.

The military's new confidentiality policy announced in March, known as restricted reporting, allows sexual assault victims to disclose incidents to certain individuals, including sexual assault response coordinators, health care providers and chaplains. Victims are then assigned a victim advocate.

The incident remains confidential and commanders are told only that a sexual assault has occurred. If the victim decides to prosecute the case, confidentiality ends.

Roger Kaplan, spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, said training for sexual assault response coordinators begins the first week of May. Part of that training will include how to explain to victims that the information they share with the coordinators could be revealed later.

"We want to be certain that their clients know right off what is and what isn't protected so they can act appropriately," Kaplan said. "If there's a court martial proceeding, what is said to the victim advocate, they have to tell."

Slaughter said that the Pentagon's new confidentiality policy is unclear and questioned why a separate Office of the Victims' Advocate has not been created within Rumsfeld's office, as required in the Fiscal 2005 Defense Appropriations Bill.

According to Kaplan, a study is being done to determine where that office should be located.

The law provided $1.8 million for the office, but it was not included in recent reforms announced by the Pentagon, which included a policy of limited confidentiality, a checklist for uniformed commanders, a militarywide definition of sexual assault and the creation of the position of sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocate.

According to Slaughter and Kilpatrick, the Pentagon's limited confidentiality policy is not enough because it does not apply in military justice proceedings. They also criticized the policy for not covering spouses, family members, contractors and non-military Defense Department employees. The new policy also is unclear on how it applies to health care professionals, according to the letter.