The Pentagon v. Abuse: An Interview With Deborah Tucker

How the military is responding, and not responding, to domestic violence in the ranks.

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Deborah Tucker, the executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, also co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, which was formed in 2000 to address the high rate of domestic violence in the ranks. Last year there were 14 cases for every 1000 couples, more than four times the rate for non-military couples.

More than two years have now passed since the task force’s meetings officially ended, and since that time a rash of murder suicides have plagued the army, giving the nearly 200 recommendations of the taskforce—including officer training and protections for victims—an even more desperate tone. Tucker has spent the past several months traveling around the country, training chaplains to better respond to incidents of domestic violence, and she recently met with Dr. David Chu, the Defense Department’s deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness, to test the “commitment at the top” and find out about his efforts to ramp up the military’s often slow response and change. After her Washington D.C. meeting Tucker talked with Mother Jones from her home in Austin, Texas to talk about what she calls the “fits and starts” of the military’s response to domestic violence in its ranks.

Mother Jones: How did your meeting go with Dr. Chu?

Deborah Tucker: I tried to tell him in various ways that told him the energy and pace with which they are moving is slowing down instead of building. But at the same time they have made incredible strides on sexual assault in the span of only one year. [DoD’s Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assaults was formed in February of 2004.] When Dr. Chu focuses in on something, things change. How do we cajole him into making things happen? There are often excuses from those under him that there is a war on and that the actual progress is much faster than anything ever done before. But I want us to move faster and faster, not to slow down.*

MJ: Domestic violence in the military has definitely received more publicity in the past few years, with several high profile murders in the news. But rates of domestic violence are historically higher in military populations than in civilian ones. What, in your opinion, are the reasons for this?

DT: The military will tell you that part of the reason is that they have higher rates of reporting, more comprehensive ways of counting domestic violence. In other words, because they use a child abuse model—and they talk about substantiated and unsubstantiated cases—all cases are counted in the numbers, whether they end up proven or not. They do this rather than using a criminal justice model, where a case is counted only if it is reported to law enforcement. So the military will always argue that their numbers merely look higher. On the other hand, since all violence against women—sexual assault and domestic violence—is considered among the most underreported crimes, no matter what we are looking at in terms of reported incidents, we know the actual incidents are phenomenally higher.

There have been a whole host of incidence studies trying to determine if, in fact, the true incidence [on military bases] is greater [than in the general population] or if it’s simply the definitions creating this perception.

MJ: But the military only counts domestic violence incidences between married couples. Wouldn’t that suggest that the reported numbers are actually far lower than the reality?

DT: Yeah, the military needs to admit that the vast majority of people aren’t marrying like they used to, and that many are actually living together, in sin as it were, which a lot of people still find very shocking. You’re right that that it’s going to have an impact on the numbers, though this year they began to keep record of unmarried cases as well.

The hard part about that is because the classification of what is considered domestic violence and what isn’t is different, so it is really hard to compare. You truly are looking at apples and oranges in terms of reporting systems. So one of the things our taskforce talked about, and encouraged the Department of Justice to do in their next Violence Against Women study, is to try to hone in on a couple of locales and do testing on military and civilian populations in a specific area and be able to compare and use the same definitions [of physical, emotional and sexual abuse], irrespective of what the local authorities are using, and see if we can figure it out one way or the other. So whether the incidence is higher or not is still a guesstimate.

MJ: Are unmarried or same sex couples entitled to the same level of domestic violence services, such as counseling and other support services, as married couples?

DT: Right now, if a couple is not married they are entitled to crisis intervention, but not the full level of services. In terms of statistics, DoD is going to issue information and guidance this year on how to begin to capture that information.

MJ: You co-chaired the Defense Taskforce on Domestic Violence, what in your opinion is the level of commitment from the Pentagon to eradicate domestic violence in the military?

DT: I think that the commitment from the top is there in terms of the structural leadership at the Pentagon. And they’re reaching out to the leadership the field. I just learned that one of the members of our taskforce has been asked to go to 18 Army bases and brief the installation commander on issues related to changing their approach to sexual assault, and, of course, I am encouraging him to take that opportunity while he is there to talk about domestic violence as well. And so there are these fits and starts of things that show that the leadership gets it. But permeating the 1.4 million people who are in the military is an incredible challenge. We find gaps. We’re talking to people who should be in the know and discover they’re not aware of three or four or five different things that were issued in 2004 and they are operating off of old news. So a lot of what I struggle with is that the commitment is there but the execution appears to be so daunting that it is done in fits and starts.

MJ: The taskforce was initiated five years ago. And nearly 200 recommendations were approved. Can you give a few examples of substantial changes that have occurred or are occurring up and down the ranks?

DT: The biggest visible change is the addition of victim advocates [either civilians or members of the military who provide care, referrals and who pursue disciplinary and other actions where appropriate]. One of the things we strongly indicated to the Defense Department is that victims are not supported and they don’t receive the level of services they need in the military community. One of the last things the Wellstones [Paul (D-MN) and Sheila] did before they died was to create a $5 million appropriation to the Defense Department for hiring victim advocates. So, on the positive side you have victim advocates being hired at every installation. Fort Campbell (KY), for instance, had just one victim advocate there for about the last five years, but there are now seven, so that’s a tremendous change. On the other hand, the advocates still don’t have confidentiality. Without confidentiality there is a whole group of people who won’t access them.

To that end, I am real pleased to work with the Faith Trust Institute to initiate the training of military chaplains, because chaplains do have the ability to talk with people with some confidentiality.** They are an asset. But we only have been able thus far to train 150 chaplains [there are thousands the military]. We have encouraged them to share what they’ve learned with other people back wherever they came from, how the chaplaincy can support victims, and how to confront offenders effectively. The chaplains learn that some of the things they learned about pastoral marriage and couples’ counseling isn’t applicable in these cases, so now hopefully they won’t make the mistake of further endangering people with the good intention of offering a service.

If you look at the recommendations that we have made, there are some initiatives that have occurred, but there is so much more depth that needs to be put to it, that it’s all very initial. So you’ve got the victim advocate program but you don’t have non-disclosure. You’ve got the deputy secretary of defense issuing a memo of zero tolerance for domestic violence, and yet you have very few commanders who have been trained on what that even means, or what their role and responsibility is in implementing that. Now there is a command protocol issued telling commanders what they are supposed to do in domestic violence cases but, again, it’s not something people know about and we have to kind of lead them to it. “Have you seen this?” “No I haven’t.” “Well, this was for you.” It’s getting it down to the people so they really know about it.

MJ: Is the funding for these changes there?

DT: No. Most of the things that have been done have been done with Department of Justice funds. The Office on Violence Against Women this year is giving the Defense Department $400,000 for training initiatives. There are four staff members dedicated to implementing the taskforce’s recommendations. That’s a pretty small number of people to create change at over 300 installations with a mobile population of over 1.4 million.

Defense Department resources committed directly to training have been pretty small. Now, they would argue that when they release somebody from their daily duty to attend training, that’s a resource allocation, they are not doing the other aspects of the job. So, it’s not purely the dollars but still, if you are trying to move rapidly, $400,000 a year of initiatives might not have a speedy impact. The military likes to talk about ‘penetration,’ I like to talk about ‘saturation.’

MJ: You are currently traveling the country training military officials. What specifically are you training them on?

DT: We did three chaplain trainings. One in North Carolina, one in Washington DC and one in San Francisco. People came from all over the world, it was open to chaplains from every installation and all the services, and we also had a few guests from the Coast Guard, (who are in a weird situation because they belong to the Department of Homeland Security, but they are actually military, and so we are trying to encourage them to consider the recommendations we made to the other four military services). And so those have been three-day intense trainings to take people through an understanding of what domestic violence is, how they as chaplains can respond.

In general, we are trying to bring civilian and military communities together to cooperate so that offenders don’t fall through the cracks, to make sure victims receive information and support, and to increase safety. If a guy is arrested downtown—and the vast majority of military families [60 percent] don’t reside on installations, but rather live in the adjacent community—and if local law enforcement responds to a domestic violence call, and identify or arrest the offender, then the military authorities should be notified. Without that communication, people sometimes go through the process of being adjudicated in civilian court, and the military doesn’t even know that they have been arrested and convicted for domestic violence. So the linkages are critical. In addition to that we have a slightly different spin on what we want for victims. Because the military community does not yet afford confidentiality for victims, we want the military installations to make sure that a victim living on post, in that community, would see everywhere information about the local resources she could go to confidentially. So rather than increasing communication between the agencies, it’s more about making sure that their services are known.

MJ: What has been the response to these changes at the local level?

DT: I think a lot of people are excited to have change occurring. Most of them knew in their own gut that things were not quite right and that we weren’t offering a good enough response. There is usually really good receptivity at the local level to change. On the other hand, in the local community sometimes we encounter some cynicism, sort of like ‘well, ten years ago there was a big effort to do something about domestic violence and it frittered away.’

MJ: What systems are being put in place so that your trainings become part of the philosophy and training manual for all entering personnel?

DT: Part of what is a struggle with working with the military at the local level is that change is so rapid. You have to institutionalize the changes. You can’t have change be dependent on one installation commander who gets it. I experienced this myself in Texas working at the local level. I had a commander who understood and supported the work we were doing, who gave us tremendous free reign to do training and do work with all these people. And the next guy came in and all he cared about was drunk driving and essentially unraveled within two years, everything we had done. I have learned that lesson up close and I have had to convince people that this time we are going to be smarter. You need to put some effort into creating an institutionalized approach, rather than depending on finding the people who get it. And when the policies are written and the procedures are in place you can’t guarantee it, but we certainly have a much better chance of making things stand even when things change.

MJ: How much of an impact does wartime have on domestic violence? Are we seeing PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] manifest itself as domestic violence where there was no violence before deployment?

DT: A person who is suffering from PTSD or who has impulse control issues is going to be violent not just in a protected setting, at home. They’re not going to exclusively confine their violent or aggressive behavior toward family members, it may be the attendant at Texaco or a worker at Wal-Mart.

I want to acknowledge that there are times situationally where people are violent toward family members and toward others when it is not an ongoing pattern of behavior, when it’s not coming out of a motivation of power and control as we traditionally define domestic violence. It’s unlikely to be repeated, it’s something we can treat very quickly when we identify what’s going on with that individual, but it’s not domestic violence when it’s not a pattern of behavior. Because of the rigidity of the military’s reporting system where the definition is again, substantiation or unsubstantiation: did some violent act occur perpetrated toward a family member? If yes, then it is assumed to be domestic violence. Maybe it’s an explosion situationally that will never happen again, and it’s wrong, and it’s problematic, and it needs to be addressed, but it’s not domestic violence.

On the other hand too many times people want to jump to, this is PTSD, it’s deployment-related stress. Well, no, he was beating her up before he left and when he got back he resumed. That’s not deployment related so you really have to hone in on things and be sure what you are looking at.

MJ: Is there a branch of the military where progress in decreasing domestic violence is particularly challenging and/or slower?

DT: One of the easiest ways to think about it is to think about the numbers of people serving. The Marines are the smallest group, they only have 19 installations. Saturating their community and culture happens much faster just because there are so many fewer of them than the others. The Army is the hardest, they have the most people, and they have the most people in the young age group where domestic violence is likely to occur. And the Army is gigantic and spread out all over the world. From an attitudinal standpoint for a long time we despaired of the Air Force because they were in denial, ‘our people are of such quality and caliber that we don’t have this problem.’ During the taskforce they had to come to grips with it; they were having fatalities and serious violence just like everybody else. There were some breakthroughs that happened then and in some ways the Air Force has moved more rapidly, because once the floodgates opened they became more receptive to hearing what was wrong and what they could do about it.

MJ: There is now a victim confidentiality clause for sexual assault victims in the military but no such clause for domestic violence victims. Why is this?

DT: I have wrestled with that question myself ever since the sexual assault policy was adopted. On the one hand, I want that progress. I care about the victims of sexual assault as well and I don’t want to be petulant that they have received access to something that I want everybody to have. On the other hand, I share in the confusion around why would this be? I have speculated and I have asked. Part of it is the high profile nature of the sexual assault cases and part of it is the sense of ownership the military has for both the perpetrator and the victim who are in so many of these [sexual assault] cases both service members. I am guessing here, because when I try to find out the answer to that question I get a lot of dancing and not something definitive. I also get a lot of ‘we will get the policy for domestic violence soon.’ [Undersecretary] David Chu, he believes it will happen as he refers to it, ‘on his watch.’ But theoretically he has three years and some odd more to serve and what soon means to him may be different that what it means to me. I would like it tomorrow.

MJ: Why is victim confidentiality so important for victims of domestic violence?

DT: In the current system, because of the tradition in the military for the past bagillion years of “command-need-to-know,” if I were a victim and I went in to you as a victim advocate and said I am being battered then you are obligated to immediately notify the command of the alleged offender, whose next action is to likely call that offender into his office, whereupon before I as the victim even get home the offender knows that I have reached out for assistance. It’s not just the lack of confidentiality it’s also how damn quickly the train leaves the station.

MJ: Now that the taskforce is finished what ongoing actions are occurring, other than your nationwide work?

DT: Battered Women’s Justice Project , a contractor for DOJ designed trainings for victim advocates (there are approx 500). The Family Violence Prevention Fund is helping DoD to design a prevention campaign. They finally contracted with the National Domestic Violence Hotline; the hotline number is advertised all over the place, so that victims, particularly if they were at installations without domestic violence right next door, they could call the hotline for information. That contract just got signed. The staff at the hotline here in Austin are going to receive a lot more training on how to work with a military related victim and begin to answer more and more calls.

MJ: The military’s Family Advocacy Programs were created to address domestic violence and other family issues. Does these programs have adequate funding and staffing resources, in your opinion?

DT: Their funding has stayed static. They haven’t had any additional resources in six to eight years. We want them to go to more of a 24 7 model rather than a by-appointment-only mental health care model. That’s going to be a real problem because their resources haven’t increased but our expectations of them have. That’s one of the areas where we have seen very little change and part of it is a resource issue and part of it is figuring out how to change a system that has been a certain way for 20 years. The other thing we expect of family advocacy is battering intervention programs and they haven’t received a lot of training with that, most of them have been trained in an anger management model, which the civilian community has discarded as an appropriate intervention. Most of them haven’t been exposed to the in-depth kind of battering intervention strategies that seem to have born fruit.


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