From the Homefront: You never have to face this alone

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program logo. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Sexual assault is not an easy topic. We never talk about it. I know I am afraid to bring it up because I don’t want to scare anyone or intrude on their privacy.

But we really need to face it. I’m glad to have a timely reason to broach the subject of what to do if we, or those we care about, are victims of sexual assault. April is Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month, so I am bringing it up.

At first glance, it’s clear that the Coast Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program’s main focus is active duty members. However, there are also sexual assault resources available to dependents. We need to know what to do if we need help. And I need you to know that you never have to face things like this alone.

Who is available to help

A sexual assault response coordinator, or SARC, is the single point of contact for coordinating victim care for all active duty Coast Guard members and their dependents who are older than 18. There is a SARC for every district in the Coast Guard. The list of contacts is here. While the program is geared toward active duty members, that doesn’t mean that they won’t help a dependent in need. Family members will most likely be referred to outside resources, such as a local rape crisis center, said Shawn Blaine, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program manager.

“A Coast Guard SARC can certainly provide immediate crisis intervention and referrals based on the needs of the dependent who was victimized,” she said.

Blaine said that some options for spouses or dependents who need help would be to call police immediately in an emergency. Other avenues would be contacting the sexual assault response coordinator, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673), or a local rape crisis center.

Dependents can contact CG SUPRT online or by phone at 855-CGSUPRT (247-8788). They can also contact the chaplain assigned to their units.

“There is help out there for anyone that has been sexually assaulted, and a victim does not have to go through this alone,” Blaine said.

Reporting within the Coast Guard

Sexual assault is crime that often goes unreported. For that reason, the Coast Guard has tried to help survivors overcome barriers to receiving help. It allows two kinds of reporting for sexual assault or domestic violence: restricted and unrestricted. Both allow victims of sexual assault to receive medical treatment, advocacy and counseling. The difference is in whether the report will trigger an official report and investigation.

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention ribbon.

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention ribbon.

Restricted reporting is used when a survivor wants to receive assistance without triggering command notification and an official investigation. To file a restricted report, the victim can only disclose the incident to a sexual assault response coordinator, a sexual assault response coordinator victim’s advocate, a healthcare provider or a chaplain.

Unrestricted reporting is for victims of sexual assault who want an official investigation of the crime. An unrestricted report, when it involves an active duty member, means that Coast Guard Investigative Services will launch a full investigation.

It is important to note that reporting a sexual assault to an ombudsman means that it will automatically become an unrestricted report, and it will go to the sexual assault coordinator and the commanding officer. Dependents who are unsure about the kind of report they would like to choose could seek out a sexual assault response coordinator, said Chris DeGraw, the ombudsman program manager.

“That person can provide resources and referral in confidence,” DeGraw said. “If family members contact the ombudsman and disclose that they were sexually assaulted, they need to know that this is reportable for ombudsmen. Family members can ask an ombudsman for the contact number of the SARC without disclosing any reason why they want that information.”

The reporting process shifts slightly if the abuse is from within the family. If a victim reports a sexual assault by a family member or intimate partner, that report will be referred to the Family Advocacy Program. Adults who report incidents through the Family Advocacy Program can still choose a restricted report, but incidents involving children are automatically unrestricted reports.

“Abuse between members of the same family is unfortunately not as uncommon as most people would like to think,” Blaine said.

Legal support

While the family advocates and the sexual assault coordinators help find care and emotional support for victims of sexual assault, there are also legal services and support available said Christa Cothrel, chief of the member advocacy division of the Coast Guard’s Special Victim’s Counsel Program. Any Coast Guard dependent, regardless of age, is entitled to a special victim’s counsel, or SVC. The special victim’s counsel is responsible for protecting the victim’s legal rights. Much like an attorney-client relationship, all statements made by the victim to the SVC are confidential, Cothrel said.

Cothrel said that while Coast Guard Investigative Services and trial counsel are required to notify victims of sexual offenses that they have a right to legal support through the Special Victim’s Counsel program prior to interviews, they are often connected to clients through sexual assault response coordinators.

However, victims do not have to wait to be referred to the program. They can go directly to the SVC program to ask for help, and there is no time limit on the request. Also, if victims at first decline SVC services, they can change their minds later.

“It is not infrequent that a survivor of sexual assault does not reveal the crime until months or years after it occurred,” Cothrel said. “In those cases, an SVC can still talk options and educate the survivor on what the next steps might look like.”

The status of the accused perpetrator will guide the amount of legal support available to the victim. If the accused is a member of the Coast Guard, then the special victim’s counsel will be with the victim during every stage of the military justice process, Cothrel said.

That might mean sitting with the victim during investigative interviews and through the court-martial process, or arguing and making motions on the victim’s behalf.

“The SVCs role will be greatest when the dependent alleges a Coast Guard member is the perpetrator of the sexual offense against them because, more likely than not, the military will take jurisdiction over the investigation and prosecution of that crime,” she said. “Essentially, anything legal that has a nexus to the sexual offense is probably something the SVC can help with.”

The special victim’s counsel’s role would be smaller if a civilian is the accused perpetrator because it would be state or local law enforcement that would have jurisdiction over investigating and prosecuting the crime.

“Still, a special victim’s counsel can be a great resource for information on the criminal process and can help the dependent victim and family find victims’ resources in the local area,” Cothrel said.

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month poster.

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month poster.

There are a variety of resources available for Coast Guard family members who may become the victim of a sexual assault. Most important, though, is knowing that the victim should not feel responsible, Blaine said.

“Many victims of sexual assault feel they are to blame for the assault due to something they may have been doing or not doing — for example, drinking too much, trusting someone that ended up hurting them” Blaine said. “Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, only the fault of the person who chose to commit the crime.”

Resources:

Find a sexual assault response coordinator: The sexual assault response coordinator is responsible for helping a victim find care and services from the initial report all the way to the final resolution. SARCs are available to all Coast Guard members and their dependents who are older than 18.

To get help from the Coast Guard special victim’s counsel: There is no time limit for asking for help. Victims can request help directly by calling 202-795-6918 or going to the SVC program website.

Coast Guard Family Advocacy Program: This program provides advocacy and assistance for violence or abuse within families.

Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program: Although this mainly discusses sexual assault resources for active duty members, it has some helpful research and some great information on the Coast Guard’s efforts to eradicate sexual assault.

Rape Crisis Centers: Use this search tool to locate local rape crisis centers.

The Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office: For more information about research and reports on military sexual assault prevention.

Stories like this one: Resources available to family members who experience domestic violence and being prepared if emergencies befall Coastie families.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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