By Stephen P. Kretsinger Sr., PQC contractor with the U.S. Army Combined Arms CenterApril 15, 2016
The 35th Infantry Division -- in conjunction with the U.S. Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Academy -- hosted a professional forum in Tice Hall at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Wednesday, April 13. The discussion focused on civilian sector trends in adult sexual crime cases, handling a victim of an adult sexual assault, as well as the litigation process and victims' rights.
The panel discussion was led by Maj. Gen. Victor Braden, 35th Infantry Division commanding general and deputy of the Criminal Litigation Division of the Office of Attorney General of Kansas, and featured a number of subject matter experts.
"This was an excellent opportunity to talk about the dynamics between the civilian sector and the military in the context of sexual assault response," Braden said. "We've gathered a group of people that work within the state of Kansas within that particular area -- including victim advocacy, victim compensation, sexual assault response coordination, investigation and prosecution."
Braden emphasized that reporting sexual assault is one of the most important steps a victim can do to start the healing process.
"The worst thing you can do that I've seen in both the military and civilian side is to hide it. You can hide it as much as you want, but the wound will remain there," Braden said. "The real power of an offender is when they hold the power over the victim to not tell. When the victim tells, that power goes way."
The panel of civilian experts guided attendees through the process of reporting, investigations and prosecuting Sexual Assault and Harassment cases. They emphasized many key points including the importance of sexual assault victims not being afraid make the initial report.
"I hope victims understand there are people out there wanting to help them," said Chris Nicholson, special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. "It's tough to make an initial report of sexual abuse, but when a victim does call 911 there are investigators, victim advocators, sexual assault response coordinators, prosecutors out there to lead them down the path all the way to the criminal case being finished in court. They're not going to go through the journey alone."
Nicholson added that many victims may be apprehensive to report crimes committed against them because they were breaking the law themselves. He was adamant that that should never be a worry of the victim.
"Just because you were drunk or smoked marijuana, does not mean you shouldn't report a sexual assault crime against you," Nicholson said. "Those aren't concerns of ours when we take a sexual assault report. We urge people to come forward, even if they've done something they may not be proud of."
After the initial report, the panelist agreed the sooner the victim is connected with a victim advocate the smoother the process will proceed, and the better chance the offender will be brought to justice.
"We need a very victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to this issue,'" said Dorthy Halley, director of Victim Services Division of the Office of Attorney General of Kansas. "The more we get to that approach, the better it is for everyone. In those cases where advocates are involved right from the start, there is a 60-percent increase in cooperation from those victims in comparison to those where an advocate is not present at the beginning."
Do to the violent nature of sexual assault offenders, victims often struggle with the fear of confidentiality. Jeff Wagaman, executive director of the Division of Crime Victims Compensation of the Office of Attorney General of Kansas, said there are multiple laws in place written specifically to protect the identity and confidentiality of the victim.
"Many times victims feel ashamed or guilty and they don't want to step forward, and talk about what happened to them," Wagaman said. "We try to work with them to help them be open with us about what happened because any conversations we have or records we secure as part of the investigation -- such as the law enforcement or medical records -- are confidential by law."
Though they were all civilian servants, the experts speaking at the event had all worked with the military in the past or reviewed the military's response to these kinds of crimes, and found their experiences to be extremely positive.
"I'm really impressed with the efforts the military is putting into (the issue of sexual assault and harassment)," said Jason Covington, sex crime prosecutor with the Johnson County District Attorney's Office. "The military has always been a cultural leader with regards to changing things in America for the positive. I think it's important they become a cultural leader on this issue."
"Hearing about the military response to sexual assault and what it working toward is very encouraging," said Kimberly Paul, victim advocate with the Johnson County District Attorney's Office and facilitator for the Johnson County Sexual Assault Response Team. "We are excited to see what we can utilize in our own county in our response to sexual assault."
The panelists discussed the plethora of services and resources available to victims of sexual assault and emphasized that the victim never needs to feel as if they are fighting their fight alone.
"There are a lot of resources already in place for victims of sexual assault," Paul said. "We are here to help victims locate those resources. It's a difficult process, but it's not one you have to fight by yourself."
"I'm there for the victims," said Brenda Albright, office manager in Criminal Litigation Division of the Office of Attorney General of Kansas. "I work for the attorneys, but my main job is to make sure victims know what's going on. The judicial system gets complicated and is often strange for people who haven't dealt with it before."
"The Army National Guard and the regular Army have been a big part of my life for a long time," said Jennifer Johnson, program coordinator for the Forensic Assessment Consultation and Treatment Program at the Shawnee Mission Medical Center and a medical instructor for the SHARP Academy. "They are made up of individuals who are from different areas from all across the globe. I want victims here to know that even though they may not be from Kansas, they will receive exceptional care from the time they walk in my door until the time we end up in the court room. Everyone here is vested regardless of what their home location may be. We stand ready to provide service -- as much or as little as we need to."
Braden added that even though sexual assault is a grim reality of life, steps can -- and are being -- taken to reduce instances and respond correctly.
"Human nature creates a situation where no matter what we do, there's going to be individuals that will violate others -- sometimes in a very violent way," Braden said. "That said, the sexual assault education, training and forums the Army conducts is modeled to help prevent these kind of crimes. It's about inoculating the folks with the gut reaction that this is wrong. When unable to prevent these instances it's important we know how to respond."