DoD starts new program to empower sexual assault victims

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The Defense Department is implementing a new program that it hopes will help identify serial sexual assault offenders in the military.

The Catch A Serial Offender (CATCH) program collects identifying information on offenders from victims to compare against existing reports of assault in the CATCH system and other law enforcement databases.

The goal is to empower victims who submit restricted reports to see if their assaulter has harmed others in the past, and to give those victims an option to convert to an unrestricted report.

Restricted reports allow victims to confidentially disclose sexual assault incidents without triggering an investigation. Victims can still get needed medical treatment, advocacy services, legal assistance and counseling once filing the report. The assailant remains unpunished in the restricted report option.

Conversely, unrestricted reporting gives victims the same care, but the report will go through law enforcement.

“We are constantly looking for new ways to empower victims to participate in the military justice process through our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency. “We encourage greater reporting to connect victims with the care they need and as a way to hold offenders appropriately accountable.”

Victims can anonymously submit an entry on the CATCH website. From there, military criminal investigators at military service headquarters will analyze the information.

If they get a match — meaning another person submitted a report about the same person or a person with the same features — then investigators will notify DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

From there a CATCH representative will contact the victim — who will remain anonymous. The victim will then have the choice to convert the report to unrestricted.

If the report is switched to unrestricted, the investigator will be notified of the victim’s name, and the suspect’s commander and victim’s commander will be notified that a criminal investigation is underway.

If victims choose not to participate, they will be asked if they want to be contacted of a future match over the next 10 years. If victims don’t agree then they will not be contacted again.

CATCH is operated by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, but can be used by all service members.

Sexual assault and harassment are becoming headline issues for DoD.

House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), along with presidential candidate and Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Ranking Member Kirsten Gillibrand are championing the issue.

Just last week, nominee for Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten faced allegations of sexual assault while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The allegations put his confirmation in jeopardy and lead to questions about his leadership abilities.

The most recent report on sexual assault in the military estimated 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted in 2018, that’s compared to nearly 15,000 in 2016.

The Pentagon started a sexual assault task force in March after former Air Force pilot Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) called for the Pentagon to prioritize sexual assault and harassment issues.

McSally said she was raped by a superior officer while service in the military.

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