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Friday, June 28, 2013

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere: How DOMA, SB5, and VRA are interrelated

There’s a lot to celebrate from the past couple of days.  In case you’ve been under a rock and missed the news: DOMA and Prop 8 were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Additionally, the Texas SB5 was effectively filibustered (for more than 11 hours by one woman) so that it did not come to a vote which prevented the most stringent abortion regulations from going into effect..

I have seen the celebration in all aspects of my life.  My phone has lit up with excited text messages from friends who had previously planned on getting married and now can enjoy the full benefits.  I have received messages just of pure excitement from allies who recognize the true importance that the repeal of DOMA can have for so many current and future relationships.  I have seen pictures and statuses of joy on Facebook and Twitter.  I watched the strength and will power of Senator Wendy Davis as she stood without a single break for more than 11 hours.  I witnessed tens of thousands of people overwhelm the TX State House with noise when the filibuster was ended so that the bill could not be called for a vote and then erupt into cheers when the clock passed midnight.

Indeed there has been a lot of joy, celebration, and recognition of rights over the past couple of days.  And it is appropriate to recognize that.  These victories are the outcome of the hard work, diligence, and unfaltering efforts of countless advocates and organizations.  Each one of them deserves the credit for the change that was created.

However, there has also been great tragedy over the past few days as well as monumentally important legislation was deemed unconstitutional and struck down.  Among them, important pieces of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Originally, VRA required any state with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to have any redistricting, new polling places, and any other new voting procedures to be approved by the DOJ.  That all changed this week.  According to Chief Justice Roberts, the country has changed and therefore these protections are no longer required in order to ensure proper representation and safety of racial minorities at the polls.  Ginsburg had a poetic dissent where she equated tossing the VRA with tossing an umbrella when it is raining because you aren’t getting wet.  Essentially her point is that there has been less gerrymandering because of the VRA and to get rid of it because it’s working is completely absurd. 

If you watched The Daily Show or The Colbert Report this week, you will have seen segments about how quickly states are taking advantage of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.  Texas has moved to enact a voting ID law that requires proof of citizenship and residency and putting redistricting maps into place; both of these actions were previously struck down by the DOJ.  South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi all have announced plans to move forward with voter ID bills.  All of these states were originally required to get preclearance from the DOJ before implementing new regulations but now all are free to carry forward without regulation.

At first thought, perhaps it is a bit confusing as to why voter ID laws are racist and problematic.  Shouldn’t everyone have an ID anyways and wouldn’t this protect against voter fraud?  There have been numerous studies about voter fraud and virtually no evidence has been found to support the claim that, without IDs, people are lying about their identities.  For many people, acquiring an ID is not so easy.  For many low-income individuals or recent immigrants, obtaining birth certificates (which can cost around $50) can be impossible.  Others may not have cars or access to transportation in order to go to the necessary facilities to request the documents.  Or perhaps they are not in job where they can take time off during the week without a significant loss of pay or being fired.  There are many reasons why it can be difficult to obtain an ID but one thing is certain: these laws and requirements don’t affect everyone equally.  The Brennan Center found that the majority of people without photo IDs were significantly higher among African Americans, people over age 65, and low-income Americans.  Therefore by implementing strict photo ID laws, states are severely limiting the voices and representation of these citizens.

Having a social justice and oppression/privilege focus and lenses, makes one realize just how interconnected everything is.  The repeal of DOMA and Prop 8 are recognizing the rights that married LGBTQ couples deserve to have and that these rights should not be limited by the federal government.  However, the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act is diminishing the rights of people of color, specifically African Americans.  So where do we celebrate and where do we call the injustices to light? For instance, what about LGBTQ people of color?  Should they be celebrating because they are now allowed the full rights and benefits of marriage?  Or should they be outraged because of how many will be discriminated against in the elections  to come?  Their identity as a person of color and LGBTQ are not separate but intertwined and deserve to be fully recognized, respected, and protected.

There’s no saying the extent of the impacts that the Voting Rights Act will have on the future both for individuals and for the laws of this nation.  It has protected countless situations to ensure that people have equal access to voting and representation.  In fact, ironically enough, it protected the districting maps that eventually led to Senator Wendy Davis to being elected.  Senator Davis represents a district that is predominately made up of racial minorities and lower socio-economic neighborhoods.  In 2011, the Texas GOP tried to create a redistricting map that would have divided the majority of people who voted for her into predominately white and Republican-voting districts.  Senator Davis brought the issue to the DOJ under the VRA and the redistricting maps were not approved.  The proposed redistricting would have most likely prevented Senator Davis from gaining reelection which would have made Tuesday’s filibuster completely impossible. 

Without the filibuster, the Republicans would have easily pushed through the strictest legislation in the country pertaining to abortion.  The state’s abortion facilities would have dropped from over 60 to 5.  Only 5 facilities  in a state of over 24 million people and almost 270,000 square miles.  This would have forced millions of women* to drive for hours upon hours to reach a safe and legal abortion provider.  In order to do this, women must have the ability to take time off work, proper expenses, child care, and reliable transportation.  All of those difficulties would have been exponentially worse because of another statue of the bill that stipulated a woman must have two in-person visits with a doctor before obtaining an abortion.  Texas also would have required that doctors read a script to the woman that is created by the state and cannot be altered regardless of the condition of the woman or the reason for terminating the pregnancy.  The bill also would have outlawed abortion in Texas at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization.  All of these stringent and completely pointless regulations would have gone into effect with no exception for rape or incest survivors.

Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in this country in the 1970s.  However many states have gone to great lengths to limit, restrict, and regulate a person’s ability to access abortion care.  Does it truly matter if something is legal if one cannot access the services? 

Everyone, regardless of the reason why they are pregnant, deserves access to safe, affordable, and attainable medical care and abortion.  This bill, without a doubt, would have made it virtually impossible for many women, rape and incest survivors included, to gain access to such an abortion.  Prohibiting, limiting and restricting abortion does not actually reduce the number of abortions that are needed each year.  Instead it increases the number the unsafe abortions that are done each year.  These new regulations could have forced many to instead utilize previous ‘back alley’ methods that would likely harm or kill the woman. 

Despite abhorrent, ridiculous, and downright incorrect recent testimony from Republican legislators, many survivors of rape and incest become pregnant as a result of their rape.  In fact, it is estimated that it happens 32,000 times per year.  Some survivors decide to keep the baby, others decide to complete the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption, while others decide that they do not want to continue with the pregnancy.  Regardless of what they ultimately choose to do, they should be able to have access to all three options.  Without the proper options and services available, survivors may be forced to carry a fetus to term when they actually do not want to do so.  Carrying the fetus, going through labor and delivery, and giving birth to the child could be very detrimental to their healing and recovery from the assault.  Each day they are reminded of the assault, their attacker, and the revictimization from the state by not being allowed to carry through with an abortion that they wanted. 

To close there is nothing more appropriate than a phrase written in a letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  To this day those words hold true and we must continue to advocate for the rights, safety, and identities of everyone to be respected, recognized, and upheld.

 

*Update 7/3/2013: I want to apologize for the gendered language and terms in this blog piece.  This legislation impacts more than cis-women.  There are many trans* individuals who can become pregnant and will experience the same barriers and restrictions to seeking an abortion. Oftentimes, access to comprehensive and compassionate healthcare is limited which prevents many trans* indivduals from seeking regular medical care and can also add additional barriers to seeking abortion care.  

 

WRITTEN BY: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 06/28 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, June 21, 2013

Homelessness and Youth: Impacts and How YOU Can Help!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a survivor speaker event put on by the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.  First a staff member gave the audience a framework in which to think about homelessness and those who are impacted.  Then we heard from two young adults who experienced homelessness as part of their youth.  Listening to their stories, what they endured, and the strength and resilience they displayed was such a powerful event. 


I think one of the best points that both young women made was how each of them talked about how they initially denied that they were experiencing homelessness.  They commented how they had ideas of who was homeless and what those individuals were supposed to look like.  I think that many people have similar perceptions and stereotypes about the causes of homelessness and who is impacted.  The truth is that many individuals are at risk for homelessness whether because of a natural disaster, an unforeseen expense (like medical care), or other major life events that drains the savings a family may have or leave them unable to afford their current living arrangements. 


We also know that violence can be a huge precipitating factor for homelessness. Sometimes people flee their abusive partners and might not have any where to go or may end up bouncing from friend to friend while looking for more stable options.  Sometimes after a sexual assault from a stranger, friend, or acquaintance, people are afraid to return to their home because the perpetrator knows where they live.  These people are then also forced to either find shelter, alternative housing, or temporarily live with friends and family.  None of these options are optimal and oftentimes creates additional risk or vulnerability. 


One of the speakers commented on how important her mother was during this time in order for her to make it through the experience of homelessness.  She commented how her mother’s strength and ability to advocate for the family made her realize that she could also be strong through the situation.  However, not all young people have their parents or other supportive adults to help them through these situations.  The second young woman became homeless after her mother’s debilitating physical condition had used up much of the family resources and her father had committed suicide.  The mother was able to stay in a nursing home but this left the young woman homeless and alone at the age of 15.  She was able to bounce around between friends and their parents for a place to sleep but never had a solid place to call home, to study, and to be a regular teenager.  She commented on how being homeless exacerbated and created mental health issues for her. 

Both women talked about how relying on the shelter system was extremely stressful and took time away from addressing other needs that could have helped to pull them out of homelessness.  Many shelters operate on a per-night basis meaning that individuals and all their belongings must be gone in the morning and you must win a ‘lottery’ each day in order to be able to sleep at the homeless shelter the following evening.  One of the turning points for the second young woman was being accepted into Bridge over Trouble Waters transitional living program which gave her a continuous space to stay for up to 6 months so that she could focus on other aspects of life: basic needs, getting a job, addressing mental health needs, etc.


Our awareness of unaccompanied homeless youth is growing and we are realizing that the resources that currently exist are not enough to provide adequate services to them.  In the state of MA, it is estimated that more than 6,000 students are experiencing homelessness without the support of a parent or legal guardian. 


The impacts that homelessness can create on these youth are numerous and long-lasting.  Without a safe and secure place to continuously rely on, it is increasingly difficult for youth to focus on school and academics.  This may result in poor performance or grades or perhaps the youth will completely drop out of school altogether.  The options that these individuals would have had they stayed in school (college, scholarships, jobs, friends, extracurriculars, etc) are completely out of grasp because of their living situation. 


Youth who are alone are more likely to be exploited or sexually abused.  Frequently youth are trading sex in exchange for a place to live.  Youth can also be forced to choose between living in an abusive relationship/environment or sleeping on the street.  While they may not want to stay in the relationship they may choose to do so in order to avoid the unknown violence or experience of staying on the street. 
Youth experience homelessness for a variety of reasons.  One of the speakers exemplified how life circumstances can leave a youth with no parents or caregivers to look over them.  Other youth are trying to escape violent home or foster care situations.  Others are thrown out of their homes when they come out as LGBTQ to their families. 


Regardless of the reason, the current housing options and supportive services are not enough to handle the number of unaccompanied youth who are currently homeless.  Many services are not able to serve unaccompanied youth which places further stress on the few that do.  But there is something that we can do!


On July 16th, House Bill 135 will be presented at the State House in Boston (Room B2 1pm for those who want to come!).  This bill will provide funding and allow providers in Massachusetts to offer the kinds of services to unaccompanied youth that will assist in ending the cycle of homelessness. 


Join many youth homelessness advocates that day (State House, Room B2, 1pm).  If you can’t join us then contact your legislator and ask them to convey their support of the bill to the Conference Committee.  You can find your representative’s contact information here:   http://www.wheredoivotema.com

WRITTEN BY: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 06/21 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Importance of Self-Care

A dialogue that is often heard in anti-sexual violence field is around the concept and importance of self-care.  It’s been present in each of the volunteer trainings I have been a part of both as an incoming volunteer or as a facilitator.  It’s been a part of conversations between myself and colleagues and also with supervisors.  Considering the high levels of burn out and vicarious trauma in this field, it makes sense.  However, regardless of how many times we have these discussions, I always realize that there are different ways to incorporate self-care into my life and am reminded as to just how important it is.


Doing this work it can be easy to talk to others about how important it is to have boundaries between work and home life and to have a balance of responsibilities, life, and play.  However the implementation and personal practice of it can be difficult and easily overlooked.  Sometimes it is hard to recognize when self-care is needed or when you are reaching a place of feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.  We get so wrapped up in our own lives, what needs to be done, and the day-to-day that we forget to zoom out and look at the big picture and our overall health.  Perhaps it is because you are just chugging along and handling the normal levels of stress in your daily life and rape crisis work but you are tottering on the edge of feeling burnt out.  Perhaps it is because you’ve been ignoring the signs.  However, when it happens it feels as though there was this one catalyst moment or something that pushed you over the edge.  It is easy to say ‘when I am done with this project’ or ‘I will factor in time tomorrow’ but somehow one project turns into another and tomorrow never comes.


There are other barriers to practicing self-care even when we recognize it is important and needed.  There might not be enough time or perhaps not enough money or other resources to do self-care.  Maybe it feels too overwhelming to work yet another thing into the day.  Maybe it feels as if your attention should be focused elsewhere.  Perhaps the people around us are telling us that the situation isn’t that bad or that we’re overreacting.  Perhaps we’re telling ourselves that we are overreacting.  Maybe putting other people first feels more important and natural for us.


I get it, self-care is hard.  However, regular practice of it can dramatically reduce stress and help us handle those unforeseen emergencies and experiences that may further create the need for immediate self-care.  A problem is that you never know when that catalyst or push-over moment is going to happen.  Crisis and trauma cannot be predicted, which is why they are so appropriately termed.  These unforeseen crises can present themselves in either our personal or professional lives.  Regardless of where it arises, it is almost certain that it will impact all aspects of our lives until we are able to address it head on.  Self-care, especially on a regular basis, can help us to recharge and, as one of my colleagues said, get our superpowers back.


A critical thing to remember about self-care is that it doesn’t have to require a lot of resources be it time, money, effort, or space.  Some of the most effective self care strategies can be short and simplistic.  Keeping this in mind can alleviate the barrier of practicing self-care in small intervals rather than overlooking it all together waiting for an hour or an afternoon to be free in order to engage in some self-care.
It’s also important to vary what you do for self-care.  The same strategy is not going to work time and time and time again.  It’s possible that it will feel repetitive and redundant and create more bad than good.  It is also likely that we won’t have the same resources or access when we need to do self care.  Therefore, by having an active and changing tool box of options, it is likely you will have one that will work for a variety of situations and in a variety of settings. 


Some forms of self care you may only pull out for special moments or to reward yourself for getting through something that was especially energy-consuming.  Usually we can equate this type of self-care with being a type of reward for finishing a specific action and there is a projected time frame of when we will be able to do the self-care.  This can look like purchasing an item you’ve been coveting for a while, getting a massage, seeing a show or concert, or going on vacation.  These options tend to take a lot of time and money.


Other forms of self-care can be implemented regularly throughout out week to keep us feeling fresh and prepared.  These can take much less time and money than the special forms of self care.  These can include:
• Small treats like a frozen yogurt from Angora (yum!)
• Exercise (running, strength, walking, swimming, etc)
• Journaling
• Yoga
• Meditation
• Being or talking with friends
• Reading a book for fun
• Going to an exhibit or museum
• Art (drawing, painting, sculpture, etc)
• Hobbies


There are also methods of self-care that can be done in short periods of time that don’t require much time or space and help to keep us on point until we are able to engage in a longer bout of self-care.  These can be useful for dealing with a particular stressful event or project or when you are crowded spaces or other environments where you can’t control the surroundings.  These can include:
• Deep breathing
• Short meditation breaks
• Stretching
• Reciting a mantra or inspirational quote


There are many ways to practice self-care and it may take a bit of time to figure out what will work for each person.  Recognizing the need for and practicing self-care can make you a stronger and more-aware advocate and individual.  It will go a long way in preventing people from feeling overwhelmed or burnt out. 


Since many of us are engaged in work that serves others or trauma, it’s important to remember the more we take care of ourselves the more that we will be able to take care of others and engage in this work.

 

WRITTEN BY: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 06/10 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boy Scouts voting on allowing open gay youth: A step that is just not far enough

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are having an overdue vote at a conference today and tomorrow.  They will be voting as to whether to allow openly gay youth to be in their troops across the country.  Previously the ruling was that each troop was able to make its own decision about whether to include or disclude openly gay youth.  Really Boy Scouts?  You need to hold a vote as to whether your organization should be inclusive?

Let’s be clear that this vote is not going to suddenly bring a flood of gay youth to the Boy Scouts.  There are already gay troops across the country.  However, they are currently silenced and not allowed to express who they are.  They are constantly learning from the BSA , perhaps an organization that they love, that they should be ashamed of who they are and that they are less valuable than the heterosexual troop members.  If they dare come out, they risk being kicked out of the troop and perhaps excluded from a group of friends they have had for years. 

I took a moment yesterday to peruse through the BSA website and looked over their motto and benefits of joining their organization.  As many people know their motto is ‘Be Prepared’ which could be pretty iconic for this matter.  They are preparing gay youth—they are preparing them to be told by other parts of society and individuals that their identities are less than and that their participation is something that can be voted on and decided by a majority of people. 

Several of the benefits that really stood out to me were: building self-confidence, promoting diversity, creating fellowship, and providing a positive place.  When we think of these benefits in terms of gay youth troop members, they are laughable.  The BSA cannot expect to build the self-confidence of a population who they are simultaneously trying to silence and exclude.  Those two actions are mutually exclusive.  In the same regards, members cannot truly learn the importance of diversity and fellowship if they are also learning that certain people can be cast out and that their membership can be voted on.

Another problem is that this vote only applies to gay troop members—not to troop leaders or employees.  Is this because BSA believes that eventually the gay youth will just ‘phase out’ of their homosexual identity?  Or do they truly not see the horrible messaging they are still propagating by having this policy?

One benefit that BSA purports that youth will learn is a ‘duty to God’ and have actually used this as a way to prohibit an open gay youth from achieving Eagle Scout status.  Many sects and reglions have embraced LGB/TQ individuals.  Therefore, this standpoint is from one specific religious interpretation.  Many LGB/TQ individuals consider religion a huge priority in their lives as well as another component to their overall identity.  Some struggle to come out because of the religious messaging they received and internalized. 

Troop members, gay or not, will still be learning that being gay is wrong because none of the adults in their lives are allowed to disclose.  They will learn that it still okay to oppress someone based on how they identify simply because you disagree with it.  They will be denied gay role models who can provide advice, influence development, and counterbalance the negative influences that the troop members are receiving.  It is critical for gay youth to see their lives reflected positively in their communities.

On top of the ethical and justice issues that are called into question by the fact that BSA has refused to change their policy in the past and that they have decided that voting on inclusion is the correct path, there are the simple logistics of the matter.  What does allowing openly gay troop members and excluding openly gay troop leaders and employees look like?  And, what’s the point?

If you read the comments (I strongly recommend against this regardless of the topic), you will see a lot of comments equating homosexuality to pedophilia.  One’s sexual identity has nothing to do with having risk factors to perpetrate sexual violence.  It is a horrible myth that is steeped in stereotypes, bigotry, intolerance, and hatred.  Unfortunately this is still an argument that is given time and space in the news and discussions about whether to allow openly gay adults to supervise troops and be employees at BSA offices.  This very unsettling study found that a couple major news sources, CNN and FoxNews, mentioned the concern of pedophilia when talking about allowing gay individuals into the organization.  While there is debate on how reputable these news sources are, it is disheartening to see them entertain an idea and stereotype that has been debunked by studies.

The majority of people who perpetrate, regardless o f the survivor’s age or gender, are heterosexual males.  Sexual violence is about power and control and taking advantage of the vulnerabilities another person may have.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire or attraction. 

Additionally, the BSA have been under huge scrutiny for the past few months in regards to covering up sexual abuse since as early as the 1940s, although it could have went on much earlier than that since the Boy Scouts were started in 1910.  The organization put up a huge resistance to turning over files on people who reportedly abused boys alleging that they were dealing with the issues internally.  Although eventually all materials were handed over and there is now a database that holds all the previously unpublished files.

Logistically, this policy does not make any sense and raises so many questions for me. 

If someone is openly gay as a troop member does that mean they can never lead a troop or work for the BSA?  If someone is openly gay as a troop member, does that mean that in order to become a troop leader or employee they have to move somewhere new where no one will know?  There are many individuals, including those who are gay, who enjoyed their time in the Boy Scouts and want to be able to give back.  Perhaps this is through volunteering or by gaining employment through the organization.  Either way, it will force people to silence and hiding again and to choose between an organization they love and a part of their identity.

At what point does a person transition from being allowed to be openly gay to not being allowed?  Is it a minor versus adult thing?  There are some troop members over the age of 18 who are still working towards achieving the esteemed Eagle Scout honor. 

As one can easily see from this poignantly written op-ed, it is not enough to be closeted at work or in the troop.  It applies to every section of one’s life.  Gay employees and troop leaders cannot afford neighbors or parents of the children finding out lest they report it to the Boy Scouts of America.  These individuals are constantly in fear of losing a position and title that they may greatly value having. 

While it is positive step to potentially allow openly gay youth into the program, it is only a small step and doesn’t fully address the needs of everyone who is part of the organization.  BSA should be pushed to become truly inclusive of its troop members, leaders, parents, and employees.

 

WRITTEN BY: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 05/23 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Impact and response: SAPR officials charged with sexual assault

When I first heard the story about the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response chief who was accused of sexual assault, my heart sank.  As an advocate in this field, it has always been a fear of mine to hear about an advocate assaulting someone.  And then, in the same month, another similar story comes out about an Army enlisted SAPR personnel who assaulted multiple female soldiers of a lower rank. 

The impact that these stories have go beyond the respective bases where these individuals were stationed.  These assaults and charges, especially since they involve SAPR personnel, do not happen within a vacuum and the ripple effect created by these two incidents will impact survivors who have and haven’t reported, military personnel, and environments.  The work to repair the trust and safety in addition to alleviating the new doubts and barriers will be long, hard, and multi-faceted. 

We already knew that the majority of sexual assault survivors did not report their case, either in a restricted or unrestricted manner.  The previous numbers (based on anonymous survey) reflected that almost 3,200 reports were made in FY2011 but the estimated number of survivors was well over 19,000.  The newest report for FY2012 reflects an uptick in both numbers – the number of reports increased to almost 3,400 but the number of people anonymously reporting unwanted sexual contact dramatically increased to 26,000!

What I believe, although there is no scientific evidence, is that this increase in anonymous reports is because people felt safer to report their experiences than in previous years.  It does not necessarily mean that there is an actual increase in the prevalence of sexual violence within the military.  We have seen similar trends in reports of civilian experiences with rape and sexual assault.  While many of these individuals still didn’t make an official report, having more accurate numbers of the people impacted can be beneficial for programs, service providers, funding, and creating policies. 

Historically, there have been dismal reporting numbers of rape and sexual assault.  That dramatically changed with the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2004 and again with the creation of restricted reporting shortly after.  The presence of advocates, the recognition that sexual assault can be incredibly difficult to report, and additional resources for survivors made it easier for many people to come forward.  However, much like in general society, there are still many people who identify as experiencing sexual violence but who do not report or utilize the SAPR office.

The articles that have recently come out about SAPR personnel charged with sexual assault forces military sexual assault advocacy back a few steps.  If survivors cannot feel safe in the one place that is supposed to understand, explain options, provide resources, and advocate on their behalf then where can they feel safe?  One of the most commonly quoted reasons that people don’t come forward, and one that I heard frequently as a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for the Navy, was that people didn’t trust their chain of command to handle their case appropriately.  Now, survivors have to worry about both their chain of command and the SAPR office personnel handling their cases. 

One thing we always highlight in trainings and workshops is that it is extremely difficult for a survivor to disclose, regardless of whether it is to a friend or family member or a formal resource like the police or a rape crisis center.  When reporting to a rape crisis center or the SAPR office, someone is taking a giant leap of faith.  Oftentimes they are talking to a complete stranger and trusting that this stranger is going to be a positive and beneficial ally and resource.  The charges that are now coming out of the Air Force and Army SAPR offices are going to make it exponentially more difficult for survivors across the military to trust these strangers and to have trust in the system. 

Military survivors, both male and female, already face a large number of personal and career barriers to reporting.  The SAPR office and program should be working to break down those barriers and increase the safety and trust of survivors rather than adding additional barriers. 

These incidents are also going to have an impact on the other military departments, units, and the overall environment.  It seems that every day there is a new story focusing on the problematic culture in the military: a general engaging in victim-blaming, a brochure that tells victims to submit, the entire Lackland incident, a lieutenant general overturning an Air Force conviction of sexual assault, and top brass officers stating that they support both the conviction and the overturn decision.  Mixed up in all these stories is the same message over and over again to survivors: don’t report because you won’t be supported. 

The SAPR office is supposed to be countering these statements with trainings, prevention work, and advocacy.  If SAPR isn’t providing a safe environment for survivors then they don’t have a leg to stand on when making recommendations or providing trainings.  If they are taking this issue and the people it impacts seriously, then other departments units, and top officers are going to follow suit. 

The environment that is set up in an office by the people in charge and the social leaders will have a direct impact on the other people who share that office.  It can impact who is hired, the topics that are given attention, the overall attitude, culture, and acceptable behavior.  The fact that the person in charge of the office is committing acts of sexual violence makes me question the behaviors of others working in the same environment. 

Research and anecdotal information has shown us that people who perpetrate are attracted to environments where their behaviors won’t be questioned and they are least likely to be caught.  When working with childcare organizations, we recommend asking each applicant whether they have ever engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior.  While the applicant can lie, it puts across the message that this is the type of environment and culture that any inappropriate behaviors will be called out and addressed.  Therefore, it will be more difficult to get away with these behaviors than at other organizations who may feel too uncomfortable asking that question of each applicant. 

There is an assumption that people who get into an anti-violence field should be trusted and that they are caring, compassionate, and supportive of the issue.  However, that is not always the case.  Some people enter this work as a way to disguise the harm and violence they engage in and to alleviate any suspicion that would otherwise befall them.  Because of course, why would someone who worked to end rape actually rape someone?  Those allegations just can’t be true.  In fact, people can hide themselves in this work, take advantage of the status that is allocated to them, and take advantage of the vulnerable people who are seeking help.  I do not say this to scare people away from seeking services.  Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this field are truly dedicated to the work. 

The same screening process that we recommend for other agencies should be present within anti-violence agencies.  Employees and volunteers should be asked whether they have ever been sexually (or physically or emotionally, …) inappropriate with anyone.  I applied for a victim advocate position with a police force in CO and I was asked this question multiple times during a polygraph exam.  While I’m sure it was uncomfortable for the polygrapher to ask that question, I respected the organization more because they were thinking about the victims I’d be working with in addition to my co-workers and the environment.  During my entire interview process as a contract Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the Navy, no one ever asked me about any inappropriate behaviors.  I can only assume that is standard across the board.  Needless to say, that is a problem. 

Working within the government and military is a completely different environment then working within the civilian sphere.  One of the requirements of the SAPR program is that each military unit has to have a trained victim advocate.  What that means is if no one volunteers to take on this position, then the commander picks someone and sends them to training. This means that some people sitting through training are not interested in the issue or the job which impacts the services that survivors receive.  Other times, people volunteer for this position because it is seen as  high priority duty and it looks good on evaluations.  As we saw in the Army case, the person was assigned to the position rather than opting into it or even proving an established history of victim services and knowledge of the subject matter.  This process can result in under qualified or disinterested personnel providing services to survivors of rape and sexual assault and giving recommendations to the base commander. 

When working within the Navy, I met many people who were in SARC or Victim Advocate positions who were either underqualified or doing the job for the wrong reasons.  This translates into poor services for survivors, incorrect information, inappropriate materials, and a variety of other repercussions.

Recently Secretary of Defense Hagel stated that all SAPR personnel were to be retrained, recredentialed, and rescreened.  However, who will be in charge of ensuring that those providing sexual assault services are actually qualified?  If those hired to provide the services are being called into question then who is left to create those guidelines?

Hagel has also spoken about eliminating the power of senior commanders to overturn jury verdicts.  Top military officials have frequently shown that they aren’t versed enough in the issue of sexual violence to be making these calls.  Quite frankly, top military officials are at the top because they have spent their lives in the military and had the appropriate experience and behaviors to move up the ranks.  It’s time to allow the experts in sexual violence the chance to provide their knowledge, expertise, services, and passion to the military and to the survivors within the military. 

More than 26,000 survivors each year is a serious problem and every single one deserves access to competent, compassionate, and qualified service providers.

 

WRITTEN BY: Stacey

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