President Biden has signed provisions of the “I am Vanessa Guillen Act,” part of the $770 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1.
Starting next year, the decision to prosecute sexual harassment and sexual assault cases will be moved outside the military chain of command. Retaliation against victims will also become prohibited.
Cases involving retaliation will also be reviewed by special prosecutors and annual reports of retaliation will be sent to congress.
“I don’t think many people outside the military understand the precipice these victims experience,” Khawam said about retaliation against sexual assault victims. “Not only do they get harassed or assaulted, but they get treated like they’re a liar, getting ousted, blackballed” (Texas Tribune).
The law is named for Houston resident Pfc. Vanessa Guillen, who disappeared from Fort Hood last April. Her family was extremely concerned because Vanessa had been sexually harassed shortly before her disappearance. Her remains were found two months later in Bell County.
Fourteen army leaders were fired or suspended following an investigation of the event.
“We literally moved the mountain here,” said Natalie Khawam, the Guillen family attorney.
Prosecution authorities for kidnapping, murder, domestic abuse, and child abuse are also being removed from the military chain of command. Sentencing parameters have been established and judges will provide sentencing instead of military officer panels.
The act will also criminalize sexual harassment within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“I know in my heart that were it not for the tireless, passionate and dogged work of the Guillén family, this reform likely would not have been possible,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California.
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders has been working towards implementing these changes for years.
“Right now, we know from surveys that retaliation is through the roof,” said Christensen. “The military’s biannual survey asks about retaliation. In the most recent one, more than 60% of men and women who reported sexual assault said they experienced retaliation.”
Unfortunately, many changes Protect Our Defenders has pushed for are still missing from the act.
“We have a real problem with victims getting access to basic information to documents, that their attorneys often need to get their case to trial,” Christensen said. “It’s very hard for victims to get a copy of their own statement that they provide to investigators, hard to get rape kit results, whether accused DNA was found, results of exams on their own phones.”
Canada made a similar decision regarding sexual assault cases in November, and similar requests are being made in the United Kingdom.