Sexual Assault in the Military: Looking for a Few Good Changes

Merle Wilberding

The military already has manuals and PowerPoints on preventing and addressing sexual assault within its ranks. What it needs now is to transform these into lifestyle changes in the everyday treatment of women who report sexual assaults.

More than six months have passed since the charred bodies of Lance
Corporal Maria Lauterbach and her unborn child were found buried in a
shallow fire pit in the backyard of fellow Marine Corporal Cesar
Laurean. Maria had been missing for four weeks from Camp Lejeune, North
Carolina, where she was stationed.

Throughout that period Marine officials had insisted to Maria’s
increasingly frantic family that the pregnant Marine had probably run
away and there was no basis for a formal investigation. Shortly before
the bodies were recovered by civilian authorities, Laurean fled to
Mexico. He has since been captured and awaits extradition to North
Carolina to face first degree murder charges.

The horrific facts surrounding the murder have overshadowed
underlying allegations of sexual assault and the Marines’ responses to
those allegations. I believe that Maria Lauterbach would be alive today
if the Marines had provided a more effective system to protect victims
of sexual assault, a more effective support program, and a more
expeditious investigation and prosecution system.

Six months before her murder, Maria Lauterbach filed a rape claim
against Laurean, a superior in her unit at Camp Lejeune. The period
while the claim was pending was a nightmare for Maria. She was
subjected to intimidation and harassment. She was sucker-punched in the
face one evening. Another evening, her brand new car was keyed – or
rather screw-drivered – from bumper to bumper.

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Her real concerns were that her superiors and the NCIS investigators
did not believe her. Worse yet, she was compelled to be in meetings and
formations with her assailant, and she was unsuccessful in getting a
base transfer. Finally, she told her mother, Mary Lauterbach, that she
just wanted it to go away. She was sorry she had ever reported the
rape. Maria’s final telephone call to her mother was about an official
Christmas party where she feared she might see Laurean.

As a family, the Marines have been extraordinary in their outpouring
of sympathy and support to Maria’s family following the murders. I
watched present and former Marines pour out their hearts in person and
in their cards and letters. In late February I accompanied the
Lauterbach family to a Memorial Service at Camp Lejeune that was simply
extraordinary in its compassion and inspirational patriotism.

As an institution, the Marines have failed – failed in their
obligations to the Lauterbach family, and, more importantly, and failed
in their obligations to women in the military who report sexual
assaults. As legal counsel to the Lauterbach family I have had the
opportunity to listen to the Marines’ public explanations of the rape
claim, their efforts to protect her, and their efforts to investigate
and prosecute the claim. Their public statements have all been
self-serving efforts to insulate themselves from criticism. Not once
did they suggest that they have considered whether they could have done
things differently in the past or would do things differently in the
future. Instead of mea culpa, it has been Maria culpa.

In the last six months I have been contacted by more than a dozen
families and support groups, all seeking specific help for women in the
military who have been sexually assaulted. The stories have been
virtually identical – the complaining victim becomes isolated, taunted,
and tormented. She is not guided or directed to appropriate support
programs, she does not feel protected from her assailant, and she finds
herself treated as the guilty party, not the victim.

The security and safety of all of these victims, including Maria
Lauterbach, was punctured by the hard realities of being a victim of
sexual assault in the military. They all report that the military does
not believe them, that they live in fear of harm from the perpetrator,
and that they are in fear of harassment and intimidation from the rest
of the unit.

After NBC Dateline aired a program on the Maria Lauterbach case, I
received a telephone call from a mother who had watched the program.
Her 20-year-old daughter was a member of the military and had just made
a sexual assault claim. Now she feared for her life. When she asked for
a Military Protective Order, her first sergeant told her that it would
be of no value, because, in her view, if her assailant wanted to kill
her, the MPO would not stop him. She was threatened with her own
court-martial if her story did not hold up. She was obligated to stay
in the same unit with the alleged attacker and was haunted by his
presence. She did have a Military Victim Advocate assigned to her, but
the victim advocate told her that there was not really anything she
could do.

When I talked to the victim, I was immediately struck by how
frightened she was. She did not want to ask for any protection, for
fear that the intimidation and harassment would be worse. Like Maria
Lauterbach, this victim just wanted it to go away. It was clear that
she too wished she had not reported the rape.

All of these families have spoken out of desperation and fear,
desperation because no one could help them and fear that their
daughters would be physically harmed or emotionally traumatized. Like
Maria Lauterbach, these victims had been threatened with court-martial,
administrative reprimands, or in some cases being drummed out of the
service. One mother said that the only difference between her daughter
and Maria Lauterbach was that her daughter was still alive.

The Marines are not alone in their failures. All of the military
services need to address this problem. I don’t mean that they should
write a manual on Military Protective Orders or prepare a Power Point
presentation on the Victim Advocate Program. They already have these
materials. They need to transform the Power Point presentations into
life-style changes in the everyday treatment of our women in the
military who report sexual assaults.

All too often the “Military Victim Advocate” is only a “Military
Victim Listener.” These military victim advocates need to have the
authority and the freedom to guide and direct these victims to enter
appropriate support programs, to insist on proper Military Protective
Orders, and to stand up for their rights. Often these victims have been
traumatized by the sexual assault, and they desperately need guidance
and direction to struggle through the inherent emotional trauma that is
besetting them.

Victim advocates in the civilian world are far more proactive, far
more protective, and far more effective than victim advocates in the
military. This can be explained – but not justified – by understanding
that military victim advocates are in the military themselves and have
to survive within the same chain of command. If they challenge the
system too much, they run the risk that their own positions may be in

Some steps have already been taken. In May Congressman Mike Turner
(3rd Ohio) successfully added two sections to HR 5658, the DOD
Authorization Bill for FY 2009. Both of these sections strengthen
military protective orders by adding automatic renewal provisions and
by requiring the military to put the civilian authorities on notice of
these military protective orders.

More needs to be done. The Marines, indeed all military services,
need an outside assessment of this problem for they have shown neither
the ability nor the inclination to evaluate their own failings.
Congress needs to hold hearings on sexual assault in the military,
especially the victim advocate program. It needs to study how the
military victim advocate system compares to the civilian victim
advocate system and what changes can be made to provide more effective
support. This is critical because the victims live in such a controlled
environment. They need help from victim advocates who have the
authority to direct and guide them to the appropriate resources and

The goal of these programs should be to help the victims recover
from their emotionally wrenching trauma and restore them as productive
members of the military workforce. This would literally save the lives
of the victims and at the same time would improve and enhance the
performance of the military.

Our country is committed to an all-volunteer military. To continue
to attract women to the military, the military must demonstrate that it
can protect them when they have been victims of sexual assault, that it
can rehabilitate victims and return them as productive members of the
military work force, and that the investigations provide the respect
for victims that they already provide for the alleged perpetrators. 

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”