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Brenda Farrell, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Issues at GAO, discusses GAO recommendations for tracking and addressing sexual harassment and assault at the Department of Defense

The Department of Defense estimates about 49,700 civilian employees experienced sexual harassment and about 2,500 experienced work-related sexual assault in fiscal year 2018. The number of harassment and assault cases tracked at the agency is far smaller. Brenda Farrell, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, joined “Government Matters” to discuss the discrepancy and how the Defense Department can better track sexual assault and harassment data.

“Visibility… is a key challenge for DoD in this area. It’s difficult to set policy and improve your programs if you don’t have the data to determine what the trends are and where you should be targeting your resources,” Farrell said.

Her recent report details the lack of data across the Defense Department and gives 19 recommendations for fixing the issues.

She said the estimates provided by the Defense Department differ from the number of cases reported because they come from a survey and self-reported data. There were 370 cases of sexual assault reported between fiscal years 2015 and 2019.

“We all know that often an individual who’s a victim of harassment or assault does not want to report because they want to move on, they think nothing will be done, and other reasons… We know that there’s gaps in the guidance, and that’s the reason we say that because there’s gaps in the guidance, there’s only a fraction of the cases actually being reported,” she said.

Many of the gaps come from cases where victims are in the United States, work for a Defense Department agency or are military dependents, she said. Farrell also sites the discrepancy between different branches of the Defense Department as a reason for gaps in data.

Farrell said military personnel who are victims of sexual assault have two reporting options, restricted and unrestricted. The restricted option was designed to help the victim, by providing counseling and health services without requiring an investigation. The restricted option is not open to civilians in most branches of the Defense Department, but it varies by branch.

“It should be consistent across the Department,” she said. “Especially because you have, often, employees in joint environments, and why should the rules be different depending upon what component you’re working for?”

Farrell said there’s no one number to call or website civilians can go to in order to report sexual harassment or assault.

“This is something that’s going to take sustained leadership to make sure that all of these policies are reviewed and adjustments are made where necessary, and there needs to be sustained oversight for this very key part of DoD’s workforce,” she said.

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