**Watch Senator Gillibrand’s opening remarks HERE**
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, today led a subcommittee hearing to examine the issues of intimate partner violence and child abuse within the military. A report by the Department of Defense documented 13,916 suspected incidents of child abuse and neglect, and 15,144 incidents of intimate partner violence in Fiscal Year 2016. Due to the stigma surrounding the reporting of these crimes, it is suspected that the rates of abuse are likely higher. However, the Department of Defense has yet to conduct a survey of military families that would help measure the full scope of these problems. The testimony at today’s hearing from survivors, advocates, and experts focused on gaining a better understanding of these issues, in order to better prevent and respond to these terrible crimes and protect our military personnel and their families.
Below are Senator Gillibrand’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Senator Tillis. I’m grateful to you for holding this hearing, and I want to join with you in welcoming our witnesses, who are here to speak with us about two very difficult topics: intimate partner violence and child abuse in the military. To Adrian and Merci, thank you for being here to share with us what I can only imagine were very painful experiences in your lives. Your bravery is inspiring.
In 2005, five-year-old Talia Williams was killed by her father and stepmother. Her father was a soldier stationed in Hawaii.
This crime happened after months of abuse, and after multiple reports to military authorities that were never shared with civilian child protective services. And in the 12 years since Talia’s death, it’s clear that this problem has not gone away.
Just last year, in the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2016 report on child abuse and domestic violence, they documented 13,916 reports of suspected incidents of child abuse and neglect, and18 child abuse-related fatalities.
All of the deceased victims were under 5 years old. Half of them were under 1 year old. The Defense Department’s report also documented 15,144 reported incidents of domestic abuse, and nine intimate partner fatalities in fiscal year 2016 alone. And these are just the reported incidents.
We still do not have an accurate estimate of the prevalence of child abuse and intimate partner violence in our military, because there is no prevalence survey like the one we have for service members on sexual assault and harassment. We only have the reported numbers, and that is not enough.
Just as the sexual assault prevalence survey helped to shine a light on the issue, we need to understand the scope of this problem so that we can better do our job of supporting service members and military families.
Congress has already made some efforts to solve this terrible problem, but it hasn’t been nearly enough. Thanks to the advocacy of the Hawaii delegation, Talia’s Law was signed into law by President Obama in 2016. It required all personnel who are in a supervisory position within the chain of command to report suspected child abuse and neglect.
This law was a good first step, but we need to do much more to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.
We need to help stop the abuse before it begins and properly address it once it happens.
To address intimate partner violence and child abuse, we must start by addressing the unique stressors on military families. The challenges of deployment and reintegration, isolation from support networks, and fears that reporting your service member for violence may result in the end of his or her career and potentially the loss of income and benefits for the family put significant strains on families. These difficult factors make hard decisions about coming forward even harder.
When it comes to intimate partner violence, we must also look not only at the psychological consequences of abuse, but also the long-term physical health risks it causes. Approximately 20 million women experience intimate partner violence-related traumatic brain injury in this country every year. One study found 92% of the women in domestic violence shelters in New York State were hit in the head by their partner between one and twenty times; and 50% of intimate partner violence survivors are strangled at some point in the course of their relationship. Yet, survivors of intimate partner violence are not routinely screened for strangulation or brain injury in emergency rooms and they often do not themselves realize that they have lost consciousness.
In addition to the health concerns posed by these injuries; lack of awareness of their cognitive and behavioral effects such as loss of memory, confusion, or agitation can impact the way a survivor is treated during an investigation. First responders and law enforcement personnel who are unaware of these consequences may misinterpret these behaviors as lack of cooperation or a difficult personality and decline to move forward with additional inquiry or intervention.
The Family Advocacy Program has grown and improved in the last several years and I know has hard-working, dedicated personnel who care deeply about the prevention of this violence. The implementation of more structured criteria for evaluating cases and increased, more sophisticated, training and education of response personnel is encouraging. However, I believe more can and must be done for our military and their families, especially the children who are the most vulnerable.
For too long, intimate partner violence and child abuse have been characterized as a “family issue” to be kept private. As a result, the violence and trauma of abuse has lived in the shadows. It is time we shine a light on these experiences. I’ve also received written statements from three separate individuals – Captain Levi Fuller, Ms. Jennifer Elmore, and Ms. Celina Meadows – who would like to share their experiences and I would like to have these statements included in the record.
I hope this hearing today is the beginning of a productive dialogue that can do just that – shine a light on these issues. I hope we all listen to the survivors of these crimes, listen to the advocates who work on these cases day in and day out, and listen to the experts to truly gain a better understanding of these cases and what we can do to improve our prevention and response programs. And I hope that someday we are all here again talking about how far we’ve come and celebrating that there are no more cases like Talia’s.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.