Monday, May 13, 2013

The military's hidden epidemic: false or baseless claims of sexual abuse

The Department of Defense's Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for fiscal year 2012  released by the Pentagon last week has been widely discussed in the mainstream news media -- or, at least, one portion of it has been widely discussed. Almost all of the attention has been on the unacceptable prevalence of sexual misconduct.

Hardly discussed at all is that the report shows an unacceptably high percentage of wrongful rape claims in the military, and that reports of false or baseless complaints of sexual abuse in the military are rising at a much faster pace than reports of sexual assault.

At the outset, it is important to note that the report calls false or baseless claims "unfounded." The word "unfounded," is ambiguous when used without definition, but in this report, it is carefully defined. The Pentagon's report specifically defines "unfounded" claims as "false or baseless" (page 13).  More specifically: "When an MCIO makes a determination that available evidence indicates the individual accused of sexual assault did not commit the offense, or the offense was improperly reported or recorded as a sexual assault, the allegations against the subject are considered to be unfounded. As a result, no action is taken against the accused." (Pages 66-67.) Further, when the "evidence discovered by the investigation demonstrates that the accused person did not commit the offense," the report says "the allegations are determined to be unfounded, meaning false or baseless." (Page 79.)

A brief summary of the numbers is revealing.  In FY 2009, the Pentagon said there were 3,230 reports of sexual assault. See here. According to the FY12 report released last week, there were 3,374 reports of sexual assault. (Page 3 of the report.) That is a 4.5 percent increase.

But during that same period, the percentage of unfounded claims (meaning false or baseless) has jumped much more dramatically. Specifically, in FY09, 331 of the 2,584 subjects in reported dispositions made unfounded allegations. In FY12, 444 of the 2,661 subjects in reported dispositions made unfounded allegations. (Page 80 of the report.)

This means that for fiscal year 2012, the percentage of unfounded claims was a whopping 17 percent of all claims. (That does not mean that the remaining 83 percent were actual sexual assaults: the 17 percent represents only the claims that could be determined to be unfounded. As for the rest, many sexual assault reports fall into a gray area where it is impossible to say whether a sexual assault occurred but it is also not possible to say the claim were false or baseless.)

Perhaps even more startling, between 2009 and 2012, the number of claims that were false or baseless jumped a staggering 34 percent.

Not only has the mainstream news media practically ignored the unacceptably high percentage of unfounded sexual assault claims, the report itself seems unconcerned about it.
Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness, said the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Office (SAPRO) is ignoring the problem of false reports.  
“Unsubstantiated accusations remain a significant problem, but the SAPRO is doing nothing about it,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “I went through both volumes and found no evidence of concern about the significant 17 percent of ‘unfounded accusations.’ Something should be done to reduce the numbers of false accusations, the first step being an admission that the problem exists.” (See here.)
Any discussion of the problem of wrongful rape claims need not, and should not, detract from the discussion about sexual assault. But willfully ignoring a serious problem that is well-known among servicemen undermines confidence in efforts to reduce sexual assault and engenders a belief that there is a concerted witch hunt against male recruits when it comes to sexual offenses while false accusers are excused.

Justice requires that every allegation of sexual misconduct be treated seriously but that false claims should not be tolerated. Concern about one problem should not mean that there is an absence of concern about the other. In short, it should not be a zero sum game.

Women do not join the military to be raped; men do not join the military to have their reputations destroyed or their liberty taken away from them by false rape claims.