Criminal Justice News

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Victim Advocates help sexual assault survivors seek help, justice

by Staff Sgt. Susan Davis
319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

4/25/2013 - GRAND FORKS AFB, N.D. -- April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), and Grand Forks Air Force Base has an effective weapon to combat sexual assault within its gates--volunteer victim advocates.

The advocates, referred to as VAs, act as first-line responders when a sexual assault occurs, offering information, guidance and assistance to the victim, or even just a listening ear.

"First and foremost, I have absolutely no tolerance for sexual assault or for those who would commit this crime," said Col. Christopher Mann, 319th Air Base Wing interim commander, who oversees the program. "However, if an assault occurs, I am completely committed to ensuring the victim receives the best possible care. Recovering from a sexual assault is an extremely difficult process but, due to the hard work and dedication of our VAs, it is a process no victim has to go through alone."

Advocates are placed on a rotating on-call roster, so someone is always on duty. If they receive a call from a victim, the victim then becomes their top priority.

Susan Grollimund, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program assistant, supports the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), and provides training and education to VAs, as well as the base at large. She also maintains the on-call schedule for victim advocates.

"Victim advocates are a sort of catch-all support mechanism for victims of sexual assault," she said. "They educate victims on their options, and help them with anything else they need help with; deciding whether to file a restricted or unrestricted report, supporting them through the forensic or legal investigative process, getting them chaplain support, helping them find resources to get their lives back together, anything. Part of my job is to make myself accessible for the VAs and offer support to them if they need it."

Each VA has his or her own personal reasons for volunteering for the program. Some just want to be there to help someone in their time of need.

"When I decided to become a victim advocate, I just knew I wanted to help other people," said Staff Sgt. Camesha Rives, 319th Force Support Squadron, who has been a VA for more than two years. "When you hear that phone ring, you never know who's on the other end. It could be someone just looking for some information, or it could be someone who's having the worst day of their life."

She first decided to become a VA while stationed at Ghedi Air Base, Italy, a small installation of less than 200 military members. Her philosophy on sexual assault prevention is that it all comes down to being vigilant.

"Being a good wingman is as simple as seeing someone who looks like they might be in an uncomfortable situation, approaching them and asking, 'you good?'" she said. "It doesn't mean you have to get totally involved. It just means you care enough to make sure the person isn't in any immediate danger."

Others become VAs to turn a personal tragedy into a tool to empower other victims.

"I first decided to become a victim advocate back in 2006 while I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., when the program was new to the military," said Tech. Sgt. Erica Claus-Numsali, 319th Force Support Squadron.

She explained that she was a victim of sexual assault at her first duty station, and almost didn't re-enlist because of the lack of support, even after she reported it.

"I changed my mind because I told myself that I wasn't going to let anybody else decide my future for me by getting out, when my original intention before that incident was to retire from the Air Force," she said.

Claus-Numsali has a unique attitude toward people who have experienced sexual assault.

"I have learned that the victims should not be seen as 'victims,' but rather as 'survivors,'" she said. "They have bravely come forward to seek help and justice, and I want to be there for them."

Still other VAs use the program as a stepping stone toward a career as a full-time victim advocate.

"My passion is helping people, especially women and children," said Senior Airman Jasreen Kaur, 69th Reconnaissance Group, who is also a VA for the Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC) in Grand Forks.

Kaur, who also has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, said that being a VA is something she takes very seriously.

"Not just anyone can or should be a victim advocate," she said. "If you want to stand up for a cause, and you're passionate and committed to helping people, you can do what we do."

Grollimund said she currently has 14 VAs on the books--males and females, officers, enlisted and civilians. However, due to permanent changes of station, temporary duty assignments, deployments, retirements and other commitments that might tie up other VAs, she always welcomes new victim advocate applicants.

"The more victim advocates we have, the more opportunity we have to reach out to the base," she said.

However, she also advised that the application process to become a VA can be a lengthy one, and requires a serious commitment on the part of the applicant.

Applicants are asked in the questionnaire to explain why they want to become a VA, what skills, education or life experience they possess, and what stressors they have in their lives. Applicants are also required to list two references on the application form.

"I expect our VAs to perform their duties with the highest levels of caring, empathy, and respect," said Mann. "VAs must uphold the highest standards of our Air Force and ensure victims of sexual assault know they are never alone in the recovery process, no matter how long it may take. The role of the wing commander is to ensure that only our best Airmen are selected and trained to provide the full range of support to any and all victims of sexual assault. It's my responsibility to ensure victims of sexual assault receive the best possible care, and our VAs are vital to our Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Programs."

Upon selection, new VAs must undergo 40 hours of training, which is the same type of training as SARCs undergo at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

"In addition to that, victim advocates are now also required to be nationally certified through the National Organization for Victim Assistance, or NOVA, a private, charitable non-profit," said Grollimund.

Rives said that becoming a VA has been beneficial to her in many ways; she said it has even made her a better supervisor.

"I wish everyone could be a VA," said Rives. "It's made me more perceptive, more sensitive and more knowledgeable. It's seriously one of the most rewarding things you can do in the military."

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Call the SARC hotline at 701-747-SARC (7272).

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