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From victim to survivor through SAPR

BRADLEY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Conn. -- Since 2009, the Connecticut Air National Guard has been working to prevent and raise awareness of sexual assault among members through the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program.

Sexual assault is a serious problem that has affected thousands of service members, including some members of the Connecticut Air National Guard. The SAPR program helps people on their journey from victim to survivor.

“Most military sexual predators have 11 to 13 victims. They’re opportunistic predators," said Major Katherine Maines, Joint Force Headquarters Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the Connecticut Army and Air National Guard. "I want to make sure that they’re not welcomed here and that we can successfully and quickly remove them from our force. Then, I want to make sure that those victims feel empowered and cared for and respected and believed.”

The purpose of the SAPR program is to work in the best interest of the victim. Victim advocates, people who support and work on behalf of sexual assault victims, are highly trained and credentialed. Per Air Force SAPR training policy, victim advocates must complete a 40-hour course that includes training on trauma, ethics and legal proceedings. Upon completion of the course, victim advocates go through credentialing, which is done through the National Organization of Victim Advocates (NOVA), and must pass a background check that goes back ten years. The process of becoming a qualified victim advocate takes approximately six months. In order to maintain their credentials, victim advocates must complete 32 hours of additional training every 24 months. The Connecticut National Guard puts on a two-day, 16-hour victim advocate refresher training every year, during which members of the medical community, local and federal law enforcement and social workers are brought in from all over the country to speak.

The Sexual Assault Coordinator and victim advocates work together as a liaison, providing both advocacy and referrals for people who have been sexually assaulted. The services are available to Title 5 and Title 32 employees, as well as traditional and M-Day Guardsmen, military spouses and dependents who are 18 years of age or older.

“We want to make sure our victim advocates are best prepared to work with a victim to understand what a court proceeding looks like, to understand what sitting with a victim when they’re talking to the police looks like, to understand what a forensic exam looks like and what a nurse is looking for to find evidence of a sexual assault, so that when they are meeting with that client for the first time, nothing is new,” said Maines.

A common concern of many victims of sexual assault is that they may not be able to report their assault because of how long ago the assault may have happened. The SAPR program supports service members who have been sexually assaulted, regardless of when the assault occurred. Additionally, the SAPR program can help victims of sexual assault in mitigating personal problems that are related to the physical and mental trauma. The goal is to help the victim heal and retain them as a valuable member of the Connecticut Air National Guard.

“We’ve had cases where the service member was sexually assaulted by another service member,” said Maines. “We’ve had cases where people were sexually assaulted prior to entering service and people who were sexually assaulted in their civilian life, not in duty status.
We can mitigate collateral misconduct, if there’s substance abuse, if there’s mental health things, if they need a hardship discharge, if they’re facing administrative adverse action, we can work with the command to try to give that service member the best opportunity for healing and retention.”

The services provided to survivors of sexual assault through the SAPR program are extensive.

“We can also help them in court cases,” said Maines. “We provide advocacy. We help them with victim impact statements, so that they’re looking at us when they’re telling their story and not having to look at the person who committed the crime. We take them for medical exams, to the police department. We walk with that person through their journey from victim to survivor.”

Since the SAPR program began, it has evolved to be more victim oriented. Most notably, changes have been made to the guidelines that govern restricted and unrestricted reporting.

“I think that there’s still confusion over restricted and unrestricted,” said Maines. “If somebody doesn’t want an investigation, they could choose a restricted option and they would only talk to a victim advocate, a chaplain, a SARC, and a HIPPA certified provider. They could still get a JAG (Judge Advocate General) and we would refer them to community resources. If they want to go unrestricted, that opens up the investigation. They can now choose to go from restricted to unrestricted at any time, as long as they’re in the military. It used to be they (victims) had one year.”

Maines, who has been a clinical social worker for 18 years, wants to make it clear to survivors of sexual assault that it is not their fault that a crime has been committed against them.

“With sexual assault, people start saying, ‘If I hadn’t gone there’, ‘If I hadn’t had that dinner’, ‘If I hadn’t been friendly to that person, this crime would not have been committed’,” said Maines. “If your car was robbed, you wouldn’t say to yourself, ‘Oh, why did I buy a nice car?’ or ‘Why did I park it in the parking lot?’. You would know that your car was stolen or broken into, because of a criminal.

The ultimate goal of the SAPR program is to help survivors of sexual assault heal so that they are able to be productive members of their units. According to Maines, the SAPR program is a command asset that builds the mental and emotional resilience of service members during the difficult and complicated process of healing.

“They’re struggling with trying to understand the court system, police, whether to tell people and the trauma,” said Maines. “Sometimes that impacts their ability to function at work or to be a vital military member. We’re just taking care of our own and giving them a chance to feel good about themselves and that’s why I think this program is vital. We hope that with unconditional support, they have an opportunity to heal.”