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.

Young child sitting on a swing

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

Highlights_7_v3_103222-01

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 Sort descending
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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)
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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

Recommendation status is Open.

When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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