VA sites need more rape kits, trained staff to aid sex assault victims

by Vern Evans

A bipartisan group of 56 House lawmakers is demanding Veterans Affairs leaders improve its support services for sexual assault victims, including adding more trained staff and response kits to department emergency rooms.

In a letter sent to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Thursday, the 56 representatives expressed concern over a December report from the department’s inspector general that outlined “shortcomings in the Veteran Health Administration’s treatment of survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault at VA facilities.”

Among their findings were a lack of sexual assault kits at VA medical sites, only 42% of facilities surveyed reported having the equipment on hand, and a lack of staff who knew how to use them, only 6% of facilities had certified personnel on hand.

Investigators also expressed concern that despite department rules mandating mental health referrals be made at victims’ request within 24 hours of an assault report, staffers failed to document whether those resources were made available in more than half of the cases reviewed.

“For survivors of acute sexual assault, proper and thorough care, including psychological care, is imperative,” the lawmakers wrote.

The congressional letter comes just a few days after the release of a Disabled American Veterans report on female veterans’ challenges which noted that as many as one in three women enrolled in department health care have reported some form of military sexual trauma. However, researchers found only about 30% of women who report that trauma successfully have it included in their medical records.

Advocates behind that report argued that changes in how the department handles sexual assault and harassment cases could help improve overall mental health care and results for women veterans.

The inspector general’s office recommended new training for all front-line staff “to properly handle acute sexual assault cases and maintain procedural knowledge” to fix all of their reported shortfalls.

Lawmakers said they want a report on proposed reforms by mid-March. VA officials have not yet responded to the request.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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