News Violence

Lawsuit Alleges VA Discrimination Against Military Sexual Assault Survivors

Emily Crockett

Two veterans advocacy groups filed a lawsuit this week alleging that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is making it harder for military sexual assault survivors to claim disability for PTSD than other veterans.

Two veterans advocacy groups filed a lawsuit this week alleging that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is discriminating against survivors of military sexual assault when it decides whether to grant disability claims.

Representatives from SWAN (Service Women’s Action Network) and VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) told reporters that although the exact reasons are unclear, the VA places greater procedural hurdles in front of sexual assault survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than it does for other veterans claiming disability for PTSD.

The groups allege that disability claims related to military sexual trauma (MST) were approved at a 16 to 30 percent lower rate than other PTSD claims. Moreover, they say, the VA is discriminating based on gender against both men and women—women because they experience sexual assault at higher rates than men, and men because their MST-related claims are approved at lower rates than those of women. In 2011, for instance, the VA granted nearly 49 percent of PTSD claims from female survivors, but only 37 percent of claims from male survivors.

Daniella Rohr, a Yale law student with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is representing SWAN and VVA, said that the organizations “had no choice” but to file suit after the VA ignored a formal rule-making petition filed in June of 2013.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Moreover, Rohr said, the VA makes it harder to prove sexual assault claims than it does other traumas. Being granted a disability claim for PTSD requires proving that the condition was a result of the veteran’s military service, which is a difficult task.

“Recognizing how hard this is to prove, the VA has eased the evidentiary requirements for veterans with a number of different diseases and disabilities, including other forms of PTSD,” Rohr said. “But the VA has failed to do the same for MST survivors, even though their service connection is harder to prove.”

For instance, while a combat veteran can simply submit a statement that he is suffering from PTSD due to combat, an MST survivor must add further evidence, such as court documents, on top of that.

One sexual assault survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was raped by a colleague, then sexually harassed by her counselor, and then raped again two years later by a different serviceman. She said that when her disability claim for PTSD was rejected, “even though they found my statements to be ‘compelling and believable,’ they said my own testimony and corroborating statements from my family was not enough to prove that I was raped.” Furthermore, she said, the VA claimed she did not have PTSD even though she was undergoing treatment for PTSD at the VA.

“VA’s failure to respond means MST claims will continue to be disproportionately denied, or delayed, jeopardizing the health and welfare of so many military families,” said Service Women’s Action Network policy director and former Marine Greg Jacob. “They can’t afford to wait any longer.”

News Politics

Senate Democrats Object to Contraception Limits in Blocking GOP Zika Agreement

Christine Grimaldi

“Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said in a statement. "It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

Democrats in the U.S. Senate Tuesday temporarily blocked a $1.1 billion GOP-engineered agreement to combat the Zika virus amid objections to the strings attached, including restrictions on contraceptive access.

Their Republican counterparts needed 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a vote on the measure. The 52-48 vote fell short of that threshold.

The Zika aid is part of a sweeping conference report (H. Rept. 114-640) that also provides fiscal year 2017 military construction and veterans affairs funding. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the conference report last week in a largely party-line vote with few Democrats on board. Prior to the vote, Democrats involved in negotiations had refused to sign off on the plan, which would limit contraceptive services in the United States and Puerto Rico and falls short of the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request for emergency supplemental Zika funding.

As Rewire reported last week, the Republican agreement limits women to obtaining contraceptive services from public health departments, hospitals, and Medicaid Managed Care clinics. This could prove particularly challenging for women in Puerto Rico, a sprawling territory with few such options. Republicans would also prohibit subgrants to outside groups “that could provide important services to hard-to-reach populations, especially hard-to-reach populations of women that want to access contraceptive services,” according to a Democratic summary.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the Senate floor to argue that the Republican agreement actually provides “more resources for women’s health services” through the three options.

“It’s really puzzling to hear Democrats claim to be advocates for women[’s] health measures when they are the ones trying to block the Zika legislation and its critical resources to protect women’s health,” McConnell said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), however, criticized Republicans for effectively prohibiting contraceptive services between many women and their doctors or primary care clinics.

“I know the issue of birth control is difficult for some, but we know that Zika has terrible consequences for women and babies,” Mikulski said in a statement. “Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control. It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika causes microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Advocates have said the virus underscores the urgent need for better contraceptive access, particularly since Zika can be sexually transmitted.

Online requests for abortion medications have spiked in Latin American countries that issued warnings to pregnant people about Zika-related complications yet outlaw or restrict the health care, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study.

A White House spokesperson June 23 said that President Barack Obama would veto the funding package in its current form. McConnell will attempt to bring up the Republican agreement after the Senate returns from its July 4 recess, according to a leadership spokesperson.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other party leaders in the chamber called for a new round of Zika talks.

“The conference report includes a restriction that would limit funding for providers of birth control services—a backdoor way of restricting care from women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood and family planning centers that would have serious consequences for women’s health,” they said in a letter to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

News Law and Policy

Louisiana Cops Get Hate Crime Protections as Violence Against Police Plummets

Teddy Wilson

A New Orleans activist said that the "Blue Lives Matter" bill allows law enforcement to hide “behind uniforms and badges” despite having a “long and egregious history” of committing acts of violence against communities of color.

Louisiana legislators this week passed a bill making assault of police officers a hate crime.

Supporters of the measure claim it’s needed because of a growing threat of targeted violence against law enforcement. Data shows that violence against law enforcement has declined to historically low levels, while the killing of civilians by police officers has dramatically risen. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is expected to sign the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill into law. The bill’s name is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, a collection of grassroots activists around the country who have demanded justice for victims of police violence.

HB 953, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), would amend the state’s hate crime law to include acts of violence against “law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Under the state’s hate crime law, someone can be charged with a hate crime for an act of violence against a person who was targeted because of their “race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry.”

The “Blue Lives Matter” measure would create the first protected class based on a profession, not an immutable identity. A person convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime could face a prison sentence of up to six months and a $500 fine, and anyone convicted of a felony hate crime could face an additional five years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.

Harris that the bill is necessary to protect law enforcement, reported USA Today.

HB 953 was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled state legislature. The bill was passed by the house with a 92-0 vote. It cleared the state senate with a 33-3 vote.

State Sens. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans), Troy Carter (D-New Orleans), and Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) were the only lawmakers to vote against the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana is not taking a position on the bill. Executive Director Marjorie Esman told Rewire that “at the end of the day,” the bill does not change the scope of current law as it applies to protected classes of people. 

Allison Goodman, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s office in Metairie, Louisiana, told the Advocate that the proposal is “not something we could recommend,” and a departure from the traditional intent of hate crime laws.”

“It’s really focused on immutable characteristics,” Goodman said. “Proving the bias intent for a hate crime for law enforcement or first responders is very different than proving it for someone who is Jewish or gay or black.”

Terrel Kent, a former East Baton Rouge parish attorney, told NBC News that the proposal is unnecessary and redundant.  

“As a former prosecutor I know for a fact that battery of a police officer is already covered by other laws here in Louisiana,” Kent said. “To include essential peace officers, sheriffs, law enforcement officials or first responders is a slap in the face to protected classes.”

Harris said during an interview with CNN that the law was needed to protect law enforcement.

“In the news, you see a lot of people terrorizing and threatening police officers on social media just due to the fact that they are policemen. Now, this (new law) protects police and first responders under the hate-crime law,” Harris said.

Harris cited the death of Texas sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth as one of the reasons he sponsored HB 953. Goforth, a ten-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, was ambushed, shot and killed while in uniform in August 2015.

“It looked like it was strictly done because someone didn’t like police officers, like a hate crime,” Harris said.

Shannon Miles was indicted for capital murder in November 2015, and prosecutors alleged he murdered Goforth for the sole reason that he was a police officer. Miles had reportedly been arrested multiple times and had a long history of mental illness.

As the legal proceedings unfolded, allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officials emerged. It was alleged that officials connected with the investigation had an improper sexual relationship with a witness to the shooting. This led to local activists to call for an apology from law enforcement for connecting the shooting to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Miles was found to be incompetent to stand trial, and will be reevaluated for trial after spending 120 days in a mental health facility.

Harris did not respond to Rewire’s request to comment on this story.

There were 42 police officers killed by firearms nationwide in 2015. The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has steadily decreased over the past three decades. Police deaths by gunfire decreased by 14 percent from 2014-2015 and police officer deaths were at a 50-year low in 2013. 

“The 42 firearms-related deaths of police officers in 2015 are 26 percent lower than the average of 57 per year for the decade spanning 2000-2009,” according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

Eighty-three officers have been killed in the line of duty in Louisiana since 2000, according the NLEOMF. There were eight policers killed in the state in 2015. No Louisiana police officers have been killed in 2016, according to NLEOMF data.

Statistics Raise Questions About “Blue Lives Matter” Law

The number of civilians killed by law enforcement in Louisiana far outnumber the number of police who have been killed in the line of duty.  

At least 1,146 people were killed in the United States by police officers in 2015, according to the Guardian database of police shootings. Police officers have shot and killed 28 people in Louisiana since the start of 2015. Of those 28 people, 14 were Black men, two of whom were unarmed.

Police in Louisiana have shot and killed eight people so far in 2016. 

Fatal Encounters, a project to create a comprehensive national database of people who are killed through interactions with police, has collected data on fatal police shootings in Louisiana.

There have been 438 civilians killed by police since 2000, according to data from Fatal Encounters. Of those killed by police, 143 were Black and 96 were white. There were 188 incidents in which a civilian whose race was unspecified was killed by police.

Harris represents House District 25, a rural district in central Louisiana that includes part of the town of Alexandria. There have been five people killed by law enforcement in Alexandria since 2000, with three of those five people killed since 2014. 

Bobby AndersonChristopher LeBlanc, and John Ashley were all killed by police officers in Alexandria.

Anthony Molette was also killed in February 2003 by police officers in Alexandria after allegedly shooting and killing police officers Jeremy Carruth and David Ezernack.

Aaron Rutledge, a combat medic and a recruiter for the Louisiana National Guard, was shot and killed in April 2015 by a Rapides Parish sheriff’s deputy after local law enforcement responded to a call that Rutledge had threatened someone with a firearm and then threatened himself, reported the Town Talk.

Lawmakers in the state legislature introduced a resolution in April to offer “condolences of the Senate of the Legislature of Louisiana to the family of Louisiana Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Aaron Rutledge upon his death in the service of his country.”

Harris was not among the lawmakers who sponsored the resolution.

“Hiding Behind Uniforms and Badges”

Louisiana has the worst racial disparities in the country, based on indicators related to household income, public school segregation, and health insurance, among others, according to a study by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.

These same racial disparities are manifested in the state’s the criminal justice system, according to local activists who have spoken out against HB 953.

Angela Kinlaw, an activists in New Orleans, said in a statement that the state of Louisiana has ensured that the law is used to “manipulate and control citizens” while being exploited by a systemically unjust system.

“In the face of ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, this “Blue Lives Matter” bill is an intentional slap in the face, designed to control, create fear, and through police discretion penalize citizens for situations that often police create or escalate,” Kinlaw said. “We have seen it time and time again.”

Significant racial disparities have been documented in death penalty sentences in Louisiana. Defendants accused of killing white victims are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death and nearly four times as likely to be executed than defendants accused of killing Black victims, according to a study published in the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law.

Nia Weeks, policy director of the New Orleans-based Women With a Vision, said in a statement that hate crime laws should protect “vulnerable members of our community” when they are the victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

“Structurally there is a power differentiation between police officers and those they encounter. When Black women are immersed in the criminal justice system, they enter a place that imparts racist, sexist, and homophobic ideology on them from the beginning,” Weeks said.

The New Orleans Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) released a statement opposing the bill. Savannah Shange of BYP100 New Orleans said that the bill allows law enforcement to hide “behind uniforms and badges” despite having a “long and egregious history” of committing acts of violence against communities of color.

“We have to stop this malicious trend before it starts—we cannot allow the gains of the civil rights movement to be squandered away by police officers scrambling to avoid criticism from their constituents,” Shange said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated data about police officer deaths over the past 50 years.