News | June 3, 2021

Communication is Key to Supporting Victims

By LT Michael Johnson, Europe Africa Central

A majority of sexual assault victims report feeling a lack of support from their leadership, and almost two-thirds of victims report experiencing a behavior in line with retaliation. As a former Staff Judge Advocate, these numbers did not reflect my experiences advising Navy commands. Every commanding officer I met handled allegations seriously, and did everything in his or her power to protect victims’ rights. As a VLC, I have discovered there is a significant gap between the best intentions of a command and the subjective, but reasonable, perceptions of victims. It is a truism that “you cannot please all of the people all of the time,” but commands can easily avoid many negative situations with increased communication and comprehension.

COMMUNICATION: VICTIMS WANT TO BE HEARD

Making an unrestricted report of a sexual assault is often emotionally draining and not without some degree of hesitation. Some reasons that assaults go unreported include: not wanting people to know, feelings of shame, worrying about reactions from peers and coworkers, and concerns about the process being fair. Those who do make a report often have these same worries. Victims in this mindset are quick to latch on to small details that seem to validate their fears, so if a command makes any move that could be perceived as unsupportive or retaliatory, that is likely how a victim will interpret it. This typically occurs despite the best of intentions. Data shows that most negative experiences resulting from command actions “appear to be mistakes made at the senior enlisted or junior officer level intended to assist the victim.” Examples of this include actions like:
 
Well-Intentioned Actions That Can Feel Retaliatory:
  • Changing work schedules so that the victim avoids the offender;
  • Assigning a victim a mandatory escort for “safety and comfort”; 
  • Taking duties away from a victim to “give them time to take care of themselves”; or,
  • Pre-planning an expedited transfer before a victim has requested or indicated interest in one.
These well-intentioned actions, which in some cases may in fact be appreciated by a victim, can also be perceived as negative and even retaliatory. The constant in each case was: the commands failed to communicate with the victim before taking a “helpful” action. How different would it be in each of these situations if, prior to taking action, the command sat down with a victim and said “do you think this idea that we have would be helpful to you?” Or, “this is the reason we are considering this. Do you have any questions or concerns?” In the FY18 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, the Navy embraces this idea, noting “[t]he key to avoiding these kinds of mistakes is to communicate with the victim.” Although “more communication” may seem like an over-simplified lawyer response, it is almost certainly the most effective answer for resolving problems between victims and their commands.

COMPREHENSION: VICTIMS WANT TO UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS

Many commands mistakenly believe that a victim’s only concern is the speed of their case disposition and, more importantly, the disposition. While these factors are often important to a victim, the assumption that victims only care about the end result can have the consequence of frustrating and alienating the victim throughout the rest of the process. Understanding what is going on and why, can help a victim accept the process and the outcome. This will, overtime, cause the perception of the process to align more closely with the actions taken by the command throughout the process.

The process is rarely quick. As of 2018, the average length of time from an unrestricted report being made to the conclusion of an investigation in the Navy was 107 days. Following the conclusion of an investigation, the average length of time for a command to receive legal advice on how to proceed with the case was 48 days. For cases that were disposed of at court-martial, the average total length of time a victim spent waiting for an outcome was 450 days. Since approximately 75% of Navy victims are E1-E4, most of their time in the Navy is consumed by the report and disposition of their sexual assault case. These statistics underscore how important it is for victims to understand the process that will mark an early majority of their career.

One of the primary jobs we have as VLC is to educate our clients on the military justice and administrative process. If a victim is represented by a VLC, you can be certain that VLC is doing their best to make the process clear and straightforward. However, as sexual assault cases are typically complex, inevitably there will be the unexpected, delays, and even missteps along the way. In the absence of communication, when those delays or missteps occur, victims may fill in their knowledge gaps with rumor and speculation.

To avoid speculation and confusion on the part of the victim, if appropriate, commands are encouraged to provide details regarding the status of the victim’s case, such as what steps have been taken and what steps will be taken in the future. This information can be vital to ensuring a victim has confidence and understanding in the legal system. As always, commands should utilize their Staff Judge Advocate to determine what information can be shared without damaging the integrity of the legal process.

We operate in an era that is marked by teleconferences and e-mail as a primary means of communication. Now, more than ever, it is worth remembering the importance of keeping an open dialogue with the actual people involved in these processes. This is especially important for victims of violence and/or sexual crimes. Congress can legislate new rights for victims and the DoD can develop myriad new policies, but true faith in the system is preserved and maintained by the commands on the front lines by directly communicating with the various parties
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