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Domestic Abuse Victim Advocates Meet to Discuss Challenges for Victims

WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2016 — The changing makeup of the U.S. military has brought changes and new initiatives on many fronts, including how domestic abuse victim advocates perform their jobs, Defense Department family advocacy officials said in a recent DoD News interview.

Among the changes victim advocates are seeing in the field include same-gender couples since “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was rescinded in 2011, as well as increased numbers of male victims, said Kathy Robertson, DoD’s Family Advocacy Program manager.

Male victims are more reluctant to report domestic abuse, she said, noting that enabling men to report such crimes is vital.

Changing How Advocates Work

To allow the advocates to network and gain knowledge on the latest in DoD policies and a changing environment, the military services last week conducted the first DoD-wide training opportunity for these professionals to better meet the needs of their clientele, Robertson said. Organized by the victim-advocate “leads” of each military department , more than 200 advocates from stateside and overseas bases gathered at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, for the three-day training last week, said FAP program analyst Melvina Thornton, who added it was the services’ headquarters victim advocate leads who also determined the topics for discussion.

“It was powerful,” Robertson said of the training atmosphere. “We’ve had victim advocates in our program since 2005, and this was the first time they’ve been together in one location to network, learn together and talk about successes, challenges, lessons learned and [hear] from outside experts and [gain] resources.”

Benefitting Victims

Thornton said some of the topics included trauma-informed advocacy, so “our advocates know that many victims have had multiple traumas in their lifetimes.”

Trauma-informed care seeks information from victims without blaming them for the abuse, she said. It asks, “What happened to you?” rather than, “What did you do?”

Another point of emphasis was how certain behaviors displayed by victims may stem from the coping mechanisms they use to manage earlier traumas. When victim advocates see these varying behaviors, she explained, “they can communicate [why] and educate to medical and legal personnel who may also be working with the victim.”

DoD legal experts discussed the victim-advocate privilege, the military rules of evidence and the new military protection order, which is being revised, Robertson added.

Advocates discussed victims’ rights and transitional compensation for victims who are displaced when their offenders are incarcerated or discharged from the military, Robertson said. Other topics addressed how advocates develop safety plans for victims, technology safety and the impact of adverse childhood experiences, to help advocates better serve victim-clients, she added.

Thornton said victims of domestic abuse and violence in the military arena should know that victim advocates are their first responders, with help available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Every installation has an advocate to support victims, she added, and pointed out that advocates support their clients as long as they are needed through all levels of the process to include trials.

Military, Civilian Rates of Abuse Similar

States have varying definitions of domestic violence and laws, Robertson said, as a result, it’s difficult to compare the rate of such violence to the civilian sector. “We’ve looked at prevalence,” she said, noting that a survey conducted by the Centers of Disease Control in 2010 showed there was “no statistical difference, and [the military] was a little lower than the civilian sector.”

In fiscal year 2014, the last reportable year available, statistics for cases of domestic violence in the military show more than 16,000 cases were reported that year, and of that number, more than 7,460 -- or 10.8 victims per 1,000 people -- met the criteria for maltreatment, she said.

Continuing to Progress

Robertson emphasized that training and networking to improve the victim advocate program will continue and victim advocate leads from the service headquarters will also work as a team to strengthen the conversations.

“This training was the culmination of the last four or five years of work in victim advocacy,” Robertson said. DoD working group developed core competency standards for all victim assistance personnel, she noted. “But the training was the icing on the cake of work that’s been going on to truly improve our victim-advocate program and recognize the DAVAs’ significant value to family advocacy,” she said.

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)