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GAO slams VA sex assault reporting, prevention

Jun. 7, 2011 - 04:51PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 7, 2011 - 04:51PM  |  
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A new report from a congressional watchdog agency questions efforts by the Veterans Affairs Department to reduce sexual assaults in its hospitals and clinics, finding flaws in security and failures to report crimes to higher headquarters.

The report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office says 284 sexual assaults were reported to VA law enforcement officials between January 2007 and July 2010, but many of those cases were never reported to regional offices or to VA's central office. A spot review of a few regions showed two-thirds of rapes were not reported to higher headquarters.

The report says the cases "included incidents alleging rape, inappropriate touching, forceful medical examinations, oral sex, and other types of sexual assaults," but that records reviewed by GAO investigations made it impossible to determine how many accusations were substantiated.

Additionally, the report says there is reason to believe that many assaults went unreported.

"Factors that may contribute to the underreporting of sexual assault incidents include the lack of both a clear definition of sexual assault and expectations on what incidents should be reported, as well as deficient [Veterans Health Administration] Central Office oversight of sexual assault incidents," the report says.

The findings unnerved lawmakers. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said he was "aghast" when he first read it. "It reminded me of a 1950s prison system — lawlessness, lack of security and reporting, and outright disregard for human dignity," Miller said, pledging to force VA to make improvements.

Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., chairwoman of the committee's health panel, said, "As a registered nurse and domestic violence counselor, I have seen firsthand the pervasive and damaging effects of sexual violence on its survivors. The allegations are disturbing for many reasons, foremost because they represent a betrayal of trust by a system that was designed to treat our veterans at their most vulnerable."

The report found that employees, patients, visitors and outsiders are among the alleged perpetrators. Of the 284 assaults, 89 were patient-on-patient assaults, 85 were patient-on-employee assaults, 46 were employee-on-patient assaults, 15 were employee-on-employee assaults and 28 involved an unknown assailant attacking a patient.

Women were rarely the perpetrators but often the victims, the report says. Of the patient-on-patient assaults, men were the perpetrators and women the victims in 46 cases, while men attacked men in 42 cases. There was one allegation of a woman patient assaulting a male patient.

VA has a number of procedures aimed at reducing sexual assaults, including screening of patients, closed circuit surveillance systems and personal panic alarms, but the report found weaknesses in these systems. Screening isn't always done, surveillance systems are not always monitored and panic alarms may fail, the report says.

Investigators found that malfunctioning alarms in five different mental health wards failed to alert police and hospital surveillance systems at five medical centers were not being constantly monitored.

In a June 3 response to the report, VA officials said they are working on both the reporting system and protection measures. They are looking for an automated reporting system so that rapes and sexual assaults so higher headquarters receives every report, and are trying to improve physical security.

The response warns, however, that VA "cannot predict sexual victimization with any certainty," so it is focusing on uniform procedures rather than individual protection.

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