June 7, 2011 (USA Today) – There were 284 cases of alleged, attempted or confirmed sex assaults at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities from January 2007 to last July, according to a government investigation report released Tuesday.
Men and women were victims. Patients and employees were among those assaulted or who committed abuse. The crimes ranged from inappropriate touching to rape, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found.
Investigators blamed the assaults on a host of problems, including haphazard security measures, too few VA police and no program for assessing potentially dangerous patients. There was also a failure to report crimes to higher leadership for corrective systemwide action and to the VA inspector general.
Last week, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee introduced legislation that would require the VA to track all sexual assaults and better assess those at risk of committing crimes.
“It’s just inexcusable in veterans hospitals what is going on,” said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., chairwoman of the panel’s health subcommittee and co-sponsor of the legislation. Sexual abuse “just can’t be allowed to happen. It’s got to be stopped. It’s got to be addressed right now.”
The VA is reviewing the study and taking corrective steps, said Josh Taylor, VA press secretary. An operations center established in 2009 has improved the tracking of crime, he said.
“We are taking steps to expand and improve our reporting of allegations and to provide more secure facilities,” Taylor said. “We take all allegations seriously and investigate them thoroughly.”
The department operates 152 medical centers, treats 6 million veterans and is the largest integrated health care system in the nation, Taylor said.
The patient population now contains more young and female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with veterans with histories of incarceration, the GAO report says.
The report says VA “clinicians raised concerns about the safety of women veterans in a VA residential mental health facility that housed both women veterans and veterans who have committed sexual crimes in the past.” The report did not identify this facility.
VA regulations require that all potential felonies be reported to the inspector general, but the GAO study found that the office did not learn of 42 rape cases.
The VA relies on clinicians to assess a patient’s risk of committing sexual assaults, based in part on patients revealing their own criminal histories. The result is an incomplete record of a patient’s dangerous past, the study found.
In one case, the VA did know that a patient was a publicly registered sex offender.
“VA needs to really take some decisive action now to try to mitigate future incidents or prevent them,” said Randall Williamson, the senior investigator in the case.
Investigators visited five VA medical centers and found panic alarm systems that did not work, closed-circuit surveillance cameras that were not being monitored and understaffed police offices.
“I am just aghast at what the report shows,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We’ve got to make sure that there are no more patients or employees still in the system in the position to do irreparable harm to more veterans.”