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Thousands of Army Domestic Abuse Incidents Uncounted, Audit Shows

An Army audit reveals thousands of domestic abuse incidents have slipped through the cracks due to wildly inconsistent data between dual tracking systems.

Collage of two U.S. Army soldiers, documents, and a row of neighborhood houses.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Thousands of domestic abuse cases involving soldiers are falling through the cracks, according to an Army audit report obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) through a Freedom of Information Act request. The report detailed Army failures in reporting domestic abuse incidents through required channels, significant inconsistencies in the data collected by the Army’s tracking systems, and spotty enforcement of measures designed to prevent repeat offenses involving soldiers.

These failures are “outrageous,” according to Josh Connolly, senior vice president of Protect Our Defenders, a national advocacy organization that works to end sexual violence in the military. Connolly emphasized how hard it is for survivors to report domestic violence in the first place. “It’s really galling when someone bravely comes forward to report this and then the appropriate measures and response doesn’t happen,” he said.

The Army’s July 2023 audit report found that 1,962 domestic abuse incidents between fiscal years 2019 and 2021 weren’t counted in one of the Army’s two different information systems for tracking incidents of domestic abuse involving soldiers. Meanwhile, the report found that 2,294 domestic abuse incidents weren’t recorded in the second tracking system used by the Army.

The findings represent just a fraction of the true potential scale of undercounting: Auditors limited their analysis of such incidents to a sample of 10 Army installations around the country. There are roughly 60 Army installations where soldiers live and work, according to an Army spokesperson.

The audit found major data inconsistencies between the two information systems used by the Army to monitor and track domestic abuse incidents: the Family Advocacy System of Records (FASOR) and the Army Law Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (ALERTS).  Although these two tracking systems should have had identical tallies of criminal domestic abuse incidents, the audit found that 70% of incidents tracked in FASOR weren’t recorded in the ALERTS system, while 56% of incidents tracked in ALERTS were not in the FASOR system. 

Lieutenant Colonel Ruth Castro, a spokesperson for the Army, said the Army needs two separate databases because of differing requirements for Army law enforcement organizations and the Army’s program for preventing, identifying, and investigating domestic abuse.

The Army is currently revising the regulation governing usage of these databases under the Army Family Advocacy Program in response to the audit’s findings, Castro said in an email to POGO. She said the Army aims to “identify and rectify any inconsistencies” between the two databases. But beyond indicating that the regulation was undergoing revision, Castro declined to provide more recent documentation of policy or procedural updates meant to address the data tracking problems. 

“Tremendous Underreporting”

Collage of a house with documents, silhouettes of two U.S. Army soldiers, and a row of neighborhood houses.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Jacquelyn Campbell, an expert in domestic violence, said the audit’s findings need to be understood within the context of the already “tremendous underreporting” of domestic violence among service members, before those incidents even reach the data tracking stage. Campbell was a congressional appointee to the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Task Force on Domestic Violence. 

The term “domestic abuse” as defined in the Army audit report refers not only to the use or attempted use of physical violence against a current or former spouse or intimate partner, but also a pattern of behavior resulting in emotional abuse, economic control, or loss of personal freedom. The audit report also uses the term “domestic violence” to refer specifically to a criminal offense in U.S. military law. Researchers in the field often use the term “intimate partner violence” to refer similarly to violent acts between spouses or intimate partners. 

To illustrate why these incidents often go unreported, Campbell gave the example of an abuse survivor who is the wife of an active-duty military member. “If she reports abuse … she’s got to think to herself, ‘Okay, if it gets on his record, this could mean he is denied his next promotion, or he is not allowed to reenlist,” she said. “He’s my husband, he’s the father of my children, and this means my source of support is going to be seriously affected. So I’m going to think twice, three times, four times before I make a report.” 

He’s my husband, he’s the father of my children, and this means my source of support is going to be seriously affected. So I’m going to think twice, three times, four times before I make a report.

Jacquelyn Campbell, domestic violence expert

Researchers and advocates have pointed to a variety of characteristics that can make military families particularly vulnerable in cases of domestic violence, such as economic dependence on the service member, frequent moves to unfamiliar communities without an existing support structure, and separation and reunifications of partners during deployments. Housing issues for military spouses facing intimate partner violence can be compounded because they are often not listed as tenants on leases in military housing, according to Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a national advocacy organization. Their 2022 resident report found that 2% of the military housing cases their organization worked on involved a spouse being unhoused because of domestic violence and then having no rights as a tenant. 

Women are more likely than men to experience intimate partner violence in the United States and comprise more than two thirds of domestic abuse victims within the armed forces, according to an April 2023 DOD report on domestic abuse in the military during fiscal year 2022. That same report found that female service members were nearly four times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than their male counterparts. According to researchers, intimate partner violence is a leading cause of homicide deaths for women in the U.S. Domestic violence homicide risks are also experienced more acutely among women of color: both Black and Indigenous women have a significantly higher likelihood of being killed by an intimate partner.  Furthermore, the 2023 Pentagon report found that service members in lower pay grades were far more likely to be victims of domestic abuse.

Auditors emphasized the high stakes of accurate data tracking when it comes to domestic abuse among soldiers. “This will help ensure criminal incidents are investigated, offenders are held accountable, and Soldiers and Family members receive the care they need,” it said. The report also emphasized that these data-tracking failures can increase the risk of recidivism and can lead to under-resourcing the Army’s domestic abuse prevention program.

Retired Air Force Colonel Lorry M. Fenner argues that accurate data tracking is critical for accountability in the military. She has conducted extensive academic research on women in the military and has spent much of her career advocating for female service members. 

“It’s one thing to hold the violent person responsible, but how do you solve the problem in general?” Fenner asked. “You have to start holding leaders responsible, and you can’t hold leaders responsible if there’s no reflection in any reporting or databases at the seriousness of the problem.” 

Increasing the Risk of Repeat Offenses

Collage of a group of U.S. Army soldiers and a row of neighborhood houses.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

There is a formal process for investigating domestic abuse and preventing recidivism that is supposed to be initiated when a domestic abuse law enforcement incident involving a soldier is reported to the Army, according to Castro. Through that process, military and civilian law enforcement are notified and the installation’s Family Advocacy Program does a safety assessment. Then the program begins an investigation alongside the Office of the Special Trial Counsel, a team charged with prosecuting some military criminal offenses. 

But auditors found that some parts of that process weren’t being enforced or standardized, which they linked to heightened numbers of repeat offenders. The Army’s audit found that between 12% and 13% of domestic abuse incidents were perpetrated by repeat offenders. (The total number of repeat offenders in the two databases also did not match.)

One example of lacking enforcement is that many soldiers weren’t receiving related training required by Army policy. At three sample installations, the audit found that more than 35% of soldiers overall didn’t receive the annual domestic abuse prevention training that is required for all Army personnel. 

You have to start holding leaders responsible, and you can’t hold leaders responsible if there’s no reflection in any reporting or databases at the seriousness of the problem.

Lorry M. Fenner, Retired Air Force Colonel

For repeat offenders, 36% hadn’t completed required treatment plans meant to reduce the risk of recidivism. Statisticians with the Army’s Family Advocacy Program identified a correlation between soldiers not completing the treatment following their first offense and increased likelihood that they would commit additional acts of domestic abuse. 

Fourteen people died from domestic abuse linked to service members in fiscal year 2022, according to a Pentagon report on domestic violence in the military. Five of those deaths were caused by people who had been previously reported for abuse. Among those who were killed, four had previously reported abuse.

Accountability Starts with Accurate Data

Collage of a U.S. Army soldier, the Pentagon, a silhouette of a soldier, and documents.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Both the Army specifically, and DOD more broadly, have well-documented histories of failure when it comes to tracking and enforcing domestic abuse incidents. A 2021 GAO report found that DOD needed to take action to improve prevention and enforcement of domestic abuse incidents among service members.

“The military approach has always been, ‘If it’s happening, we’d rather not know,’” said Campbell of the armed services’ troubled track record.

Researchers have found that there may be a higher incidence of intimate partner violence committed by service members than among the civilian population. Domestic violence survivors have accused the armed services of deliberately covering up and downplaying the scale of domestic violence within the armed forces when arguing for the need to improve oversight and enforcement. 

“It seems pretty clear that the issue of domestic violence hasn’t been meaningfully or competently handled by the military,” said Josh Connolly of Protect Our Defenders. Connolly previously worked as chief of staff to former Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and said these problems have long persisted despite congressional efforts to address them. Speier led efforts by the House Armed Services Committee to investigate domestic violence in the military, and introduced legislation in 2020 to address the issue. “There has not been adequate tracking or accountability or counseling to help remediate … the criminal behavior of assaulting your partner or spouse,” Connolly said.

It seems pretty clear that the issue of domestic violence hasn’t been meaningfully or competently handled by the military.

Josh Connolly, Protect Our Defenders

But Army leaders tout the improvements that have been made to the service’s response to domestic abuse, family violence, and sexual assault incidents. During recent testimony to the House subcommittee on military construction and veterans’ affairs, Sergeant Major Michael Weimer emphasized the “multi-disciplinary” and “trauma-informed” framework that is used to respond when abuse occurs. “Family violence is a threat to the health, welfare, and safety of Soldiers and Family members and it severely degrades warfighter readiness,” Weimer said, explaining the progress that has been made in the Army’s victim advocacy services, sexual assault response and prevention resources, and increased installation-level expertise. 

Castro said the Army has addressed some issues surrounding investigation and prevention in response to the audit. They now require quarterly reporting of domestic abuse training completion rates. She also said that high-risk cases now receive increased attention and oversight.

 Fenner argues that true accountability begins with accurate tracking and diagnosis of the scale of the problem. “You can’t hold leaders accountable if the leaders don’t have the data,” she said. 

“They have helicopter crashes, tour vehicle crashes, and everybody goes offline until they do re-training,” Fenner argued. “But with this and sexual assault … it’s kind of like ‘I see nothing, I hear nothing.’”

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