Fast Facts

With more than 1.2 million school-age military dependents worldwide, the Defense Department works to prevent and respond to child abuse, including child-on-child abuse.

It’s difficult for DOD to track abuse cases from first report to final outcome because the organizations involved track different parts of the process and their databases don’t work together.

We also found that victims’ families get inconsistent information about the case response process. Some families we spoke to weren’t aware of all the resources available to them.

Our 23 recommendations include expanding DOD’s centralized database and better informing victims’ families.

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Young child sitting on a swing

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has limited visibility over reported incidents of child abuse—physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect by a caregiver—and child-on-child abuse due to standalone databases, information sharing challenges, and installation discretion. From fiscal years 2014 through 2018, the military services recorded more than 69,000 reported incidents of child abuse (see figure). However, personnel at all seven installations in GAO's review stated that they use discretion to determine which incidents to present to the Incident Determination Committee (IDC)—the installation-based committee responsible for reviewing reports and determining whether they meet DOD's criteria for abuse (an act of abuse and an actual or potential impact, e.g., spanking that left a welt). Per DOD guidance, every reported incident must be presented to the IDC unless there is no possibility that it could meet any of the criteria for abuse. However, personnel described incidents they had screened out that, per DOD guidance, should have been presented to the IDC. Without the services developing a process to monitor how incidents are screened at installations, DOD does not know the total number of reported child abuse incidents across the department.

Reported Incidents of Child Abuse (Physical, Sexual, or Emotional Abuse, or Neglect), by Department of Defense (DOD) Criteria for Abuse, Fiscal Years 2014-2018

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While DOD has expanded its child abuse policies and procedures to include child-on-child sexual abuse, gaps exist. For example, DOD standardized the IDC process in 2016, but the new structure does not include medical personnel with expertise, contrary to best practices for substantiating child abuse allegations. Without expanding the IDC membership to include medical personnel, members may not have all of the relevant information needed to make fully informed decisions, potentially affecting confidence in the efficacy of the committee's decisions. GAO also found that the availability of certified pediatric sexual assault forensic examiners across DOD is limited—according to DOD officials, there are only 11 in comparison to 1,448 incidents of child sexual abuse that met DOD's criteria for abuse from fiscal years 2014 through 2018. Without processes that help ensure timely access to certified pediatric examiners, child victims of sexual abuse overseas may not receive exams in time for evidence to be collected for use in prosecution, increasing the stress and trauma of affected victims.

Why GAO Did This Study

With more than 1.2 million school-age military dependents worldwide, per DOD, the department's organizations work to prevent, respond to, and resolve incidents of child abuse. Incidents of child abuse, including child-on-child abuse, can cause a range of emotional and physical trauma for military families, ultimately affecting servicemember performance.

GAO was asked to review how DOD addresses incidents of child abuse and child-on-child abuse occurring on a military installation or involving military dependents. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which DOD has (1) visibility over such reported incidents, and (2) developed and implemented policies and procedures to respond to and resolve these incidents. GAO reviewed relevant policies and guidance; interviewed officials at a nongeneralizable sample of seven military installations; analyzed program data; interviewed parents of children affected by abuse; and interviewed DOD, service, and civilian officials, including at children's advocacy centers.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 23 recommendations, including that the military services develop a process to monitor how reported incidents are screened at installations, that DOD expand the membership of the IDC to include medical personnel, and that DOD establish processes that help ensure timely access to certified pediatric examiners overseas. DOD concurred with 16, partially concurred with six, and did not concur with one of GAO's recommendations, which GAO continues to believe are valid, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should expand the scope of the department's centralized database on problematic sexual behavior in children and youth, which is under development, to also track information on all incidents involving the abuse of a child (physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect) reported to the Family Advocacy Program or investigated by a military law enforcement organization, regardless of whether the offender was another child, an adult, or someone in a noncaregiving role at the time of the incident. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD did not concur with this recommendation. As of March 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should, as part of the ongoing development of the centralized database, identify and define the elements to be tracked by each responsible organization, such as the Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that the identification and definition of data elements are activities included in the contracted statement of work for the development of the database. DOD stated that it was working closely with the vendor to facilitate weekly system requirements gathering sessions with system stakeholders to provide input. DOD estimated that it would begin to implement the database by the end of March 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should develop a plan for how it will use the data it will collect in the centralized database to help ensure data-driven decision-making is used to inform program efforts. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that it was working closely with system stakeholders to develop key metrics and anticipate reporting needs, and that developing a data use plan is included in the contracted statement of work for the development of the database. DOD estimated that it would begin to implement the database by the end of March 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should establish a reliable schedule for the development and implementation of the centralized database on problematic sexual behavior in children and youth that includes key activities, the timeframes and resources needed to execute them, and GAO-identified practices for developing and maintaining a reliable schedule. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that developing a reliable schedule for development and implementation is included in the contracted statement of work for the development of the database, and that an initial development roadmap was reviewed and updated monthly. DOD estimated that it would begin to implement the database by the end of March 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should direct the service Family Advocacy Programs and military law enforcement organizations to document in their respective databases the date that they notified the other entity of a reported incident of child abuse. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD outlined a number of steps that it planned to take to implement this recommendation by the end of calendar year 2023 since the recommendation was enacted into law through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. DOD stated that it would issue a policy clarification memo on Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement notification of reported incidents of child abuse, as described in existing policy, as an interim step by the end of July 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should issue guidance that describes the process through which the service Family Advocacy Programs are to receive and incorporate information into their central registries regarding child abuse allegations and determinations involving their servicemembers and dependents that were recorded by another service's installation Family Advocacy Program. Such guidance should include a mechanism to monitor that the process is occurring consistently. (Recommendation 6)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that it would reissue policy to explicitly reference the requirement that the services incorporate into their respective central registries met criteria incidents of abuse involving servicemembers and dependents recorded by another service's installation Family Advocacy Program by the end of calendar year 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Army should develop a process to monitor how reported incidents of child abuse are screened at installations to help ensure that all reported child abuse incidents that should be presented to an Incident Determination Committee are consistently presented and therefore tracked. (Recommendation 7)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Army stated that it had drafted an Army Directive for the Incident Determination Committee-Clinical Case Staff Meeting to include a definition of reasonable suspicion and a requirement to track all reported incidents. The Army estimated issuance of the directive by May 2021 and stated that it was also developing a tracking mechanism for all reports, including those that do not meet the reasonable suspicious standard, which will be monitored through Family Advocacy Program certification.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should develop a process to monitor how reported incidents of child abuse are screened at installations to help ensure that all reported child abuse incidents that should be presented to an Incident Determination Committee are consistently presented and therefore tracked. (Recommendation 8)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Navy stated that its existing definition for triaging allegations of child abuse and neglect as well as its Fleet and Family Support Program Certification Program meet the intent of this recommendation. However, the headquarters certification reviews of Navy installations do not occur more frequently than every 4 years. While Navy installations are to also complete quarterly quality assurance reviews of their programs, there is no requirement that they review how reported incidents of child abuse and neglect were screened. In addition these processes were already in place at the time of GAO's review when challenges related to the screening of reported incidents were identified. As of March 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Commandant of the Marine Corps develops a process to monitor how reported incidents of child abuse are screened at installations to help ensure that all reported child abuse incidents that should be presented to an Incident Determination Committee are consistently presented and therefore tracked. (Recommendation 9)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Marine Corps stated that it planned to develop a process, via a protocol, to document the standardized and formalized screening of incidents of child abuse at Marine Corps installations by the end of June 2021.
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should develop a process to monitor how reported incidents of child abuse are screened at installations to help ensure that all reported child abuse incidents that should be presented to an Incident Determination Committee are consistently presented and therefore tracked. (Recommendation 10)
Open
The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Air Force stated that it had issued guidance describing how all reported child abuse incidents are to be monitored and screened. In addition, the Air Force stated that it was in the process of developing a new position by the end of calendar year 2021 for assessing compliance with DOD and Air Force policy. The Air Force also estimated establishing a schedule for virtual reviews and site visits of installation Family Advocacy Program offices by the end of February 2022.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the Director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, clarifies Department of Defense Education Activity guidance to define what types of incidents must be reported as "serious incidents" to help ensure that all serious incidents of which Department of Defense Education Activity leadership needs to be informed are accurately and consistently reported by school administrators. (Recommendation 11)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Department of Defense Education Activity stated that it had completed a comprehensive review and assessment of its serious incident reporting policy and procedures and that it estimated publishing an Administrative Issuance on Serious Incident Reporting by the end of May 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should expand the voting membership of the Incident Determination Committee to include medical personnel with the requisite knowledge and experience. (Recommendation 12)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that it concurred with the recommendation and supported the policy change to include military affiliated medical representatives, with requisite training, as voting subject matter experts on the Incident Determination Committee. DOD estimated that it would reissue the relevant guidance to implement this change by the end of August 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Army should establish efforts to comprehensively inform victims' families about how reported incidents of child abuse will be addressed following the report, such as a comprehensive guide that explains the process the Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement organizations will follow, and available victim services. (Recommendation 13)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Army stated that it was developing an Army Family Web Portal to provide comprehensive information related to Family Advocacy, law enforcement, and resources for families in order to synchronize information across commands and installations to ensure accuracy. The Army estimated it would complete the portal by April 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should establish efforts to comprehensively inform victims' families about how reported incidents of child abuse will be addressed following the report, such as a comprehensive guide that explains the process the Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement organizations will follow, and available victim services. (Recommendation 14)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Navy stated that it was developing tailored communication, actionable guidance, and products that will inform parents and other appropriate family members on how incidents of child abuse will be addressed following an initial report. The Navy estimated it would complete this effort by the end of March 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Commandant of the Marine Corps establishes efforts to comprehensively inform victims' families about how reported incidents of child abuse will be addressed following the report, such as a comprehensive guide that explains the process the Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement organizations will follow, and available victim services. (Recommendation 15)
Open
The Navy partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Marine Corps stated that its existing guidance provides for a victim advocate to be assigned to the non-offending parent of a victim of child abuse who requests services. However, as discussed in the report, parents we spoke with indicated that they were not aware of all available services and resources offered by the military, and that a comprehensive guide outlining the process would have helped them understand what was going to happen. As of March 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should establish efforts to comprehensively inform victims' families about how reported incidents of child abuse will be addressed following the report, such as a comprehensive guide that explains the process the Family Advocacy Program and military law enforcement organizations will follow, and available victim services. (Recommendation 16)
Closed - Implemented
The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. In February 2021, the Air Force created a guide entitled "Understanding the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) Process for Child Maltreatment Allegations" that discusses what happens after a report of child maltreatment, what happens if military or civilian law enforcement is involved, and how the FAP can help once the child is safe. The guide also discusses available services and the Incident Determination Committee process. The Air Force stated that the guide has been disseminated to all Air Force installations.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the military departments, should clarify, in guidance, the circumstances under which commanders may exercise their authority to remove a child from a potentially unsafe home on an overseas installation. (Recommendation 17)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that it planned to identify and address gaps in guidance at overseas locations by September 2021.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the Director of the Defense Health Agency, establishes processes that help ensure children who are sexually abused overseas have timely access to a certified pediatric sexual assault forensic examiner to conduct the examination. Initiatives could include certifying pediatricians or adult sexual assault forensic examiners as pediatric examiners during mandatory training or establishing shared regional assets. (Recommendation 18)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that the Defense Health Agency was planning to develop and implement a Forensic Healthcare Examiner-Pediatric addendum course to train eligible healthcare providers to perform acute child sexual abuse medical forensic exams by October 2022. DOD also stated that it planned for each 24/7 emergency room military medical treatment facility outside the continental United States to have a minimum of one trained and certified pediatric examiner or access to telemedicine with a certified Child Abuse Pediatrician by October 2022.
Office of the Secretary of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Deputy Attorney General, should seek avenues to improve communication between the military criminal investigative organizations and United States Attorneys for relevant cases involving child victims to help ensure that investigators are notified when prosecution is declined, including the reasons for the declination when appropriate, such as details about any investigative deficiencies. (Recommendation 19)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, DOD stated that a Department of Justice/DOD working group had created a draft electronic form to be used cross-organizationally by United States Attorneys and the military criminal investigative organizations. According to DOD, the form will provide details on juvenile-on-juvenile sexual assault cases to indicate whether prosecution was accepted or declined and, if declined, the date and reason for the declination. DOD stated that the form would be shared with the appropriate military criminal investigative organization and that the information would be retained by both the Department of Justice and DOD. DOD estimated that the form would be executed through policy or procedural guidance by the end of April 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Army should seek to develop a memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance that makes children's advocacy center services available to all Army installations and thereby increase awareness of those services across the department. (Recommendation 20)
Open
The Army partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Army stated that it had completed a draft memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance and that it was undergoing a legal review. The Army estimated finalizing the memorandum of understanding by May 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should continue to develop a memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance that makes children's advocacy center services available to all Navy installations and thereby increase awareness of those services across the department. (Recommendation 21)
Open
The Navy partially concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Navy stated that it had completed a draft memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance and that it was undergoing review by the Navy's Office of General Counsel. The Navy estimated finalizing the memorandum of understanding by the end of October 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Commandant of the Marine Corps continues to develop a memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance that makes children's advocacy center services available to all Marine Corps installations and thereby increase awareness of those services across the service. (Recommendation 22)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Marine Corps stated that it was working with the National Children's Alliance to develop a memorandum of understanding and that it estimated finalizing it by the end of June 2021
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should seek to develop a memorandum of understanding with the National Children's Alliance that makes children's advocacy center services available to all Air Force installations and thereby increase awareness of those services across the department. (Recommendation 23)
Open
The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, the Air Force stated that it was working with the National Children's Alliance to develop a memorandum of understanding and that it estimated finalizing and distributing it to installation Family Advocacy Program offices by the end of March 2021.

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