Military Dependents:

Services Provide Limited Confidentiality in Family Abuse Cases

NSIAD-00-127: Published: Apr 5, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 5, 2000.

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Norman J. Rabkin
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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO provided information on the policies, procedures, and practices of the military departments for protecting the confidentiality of communications between military dependents and counselors, therapists, and other service providers regarding family abuse, focusing on the: (1) extent of reported spousal and child abuse within the military; (2) degree to which dependent conversations about family abuse are subject to disclosure; and (3) nature of Department of Defense (DOD) efforts to address the confidentiality of dependent communications.

GAO noted that: (1) during fiscal years 1997 through 1999, the services investigated about 64,000 alleged incidents of spousal abuse and approximately 50,000 child abuse incidents; (2) about 43,000 spousal abuse and 26,000 child abuse incidents were substantiated; (3) DOD officials estimate that a great number of spousal and child abuse incidents are not reported; (4) one key reason for underreporting is that spouses fear that reporting spousal abuse would affect the military member's career; (5) data on spousal and child abuse incidents in the civilian community cannot readily be compared to the statistics maintained by the military because of such differences as the types of offenses included in the statistics; (6) military dependents are provided limited confidentiality in reporting spousal or child abuse; (7) DOD states that commanders are held accountable for the safety of alleged victims of family violence and would be unable to fulfill this responsibility unless they are informed about the incidents; (8) DOD's Family Advocacy Program was designed to ensure the safety of spousal and child abuse victims and to provide commanders the information necessary to evaluate whether servicemembers are able to perform their military duties; (9) while the Army, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps provide summaries to commanders for all reported instances, the Navy does not provide information on cases of family abuse where there were no physical injuries and no likelihood of further abuse; (10) section 585 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 directed DOD to establish policies and procedures that the Secretary considers appropriate to provide maximum protection for the confidentiality of dependent communications with service providers and submit a report to Congress by January 21, 2000, on the actions taken; (11) DOD did not meet the reporting date; (12) DOD believes it must first address a number of issues such as the privacy of electronic medical records and conversations between patients and psychotherapists; (13) DOD recognizes the difficulty of striking the proper balance between providing commanders with information they need to carry out their missions and maintaining confidentiality; (14) DOD is undertaking several studies dealing with family abuse as a basis for making necessary policy decisions concerning confidentiality; and (15) until these studies are finalized, DOD officials are hesitant to implement any changes to their confidentiality polices.

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