Personnel feedback helps SAPR program continue to improve

U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program logo. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Written by Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Public Affairs Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

ALCOAST 449/13, Situation Report Two: U.S. Coast Guard Military Campaign for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, introduced members of the service to, among other matters, the findings of a series of 10 focus group discussions facilitated by the Commandant’s Leadership, Excellence, and Diversity Council’s Junior Council and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

The findings of the focus group discussions detail a number of themes, grouped in categories including policy/definitions, response/investigation and climate. The profound remarks and findings sections provide ample topics for discussion throughout the workforce about the attitudes, opinions, beliefs and understanding of the issues surrounding sexual assault in the military.

The report (which active duty personnel can find in the “Focus Groups” folder on the SAPR Program page in CG Portal) makes nine recommendations generated by the demographic statistically most likely to be impacted by sexual assault within the Coast Guard (those 25 years old or younger). The report, including the recommendations, was reviewed by the vice commandant, the deputy commandant for Mission Support and the assistant commandant for Human Resources. It was signed by the Commandant on Oct. 9, 2013. Among the recommendations generated by the focus group discussions are:

• Clarify, for the workforce, the definition of sexual harassment and how it differs from sexual assault, and noting that unwanted contact falls within the definition of harassment.
• Creating a reporting option that falls between current unrestricted and restricted reporting procedures, to allow victims of sexual assault to use their own support networks, to lean upon their friends and shipmates, without fear of initiating an unrestricted report and the legal entanglements associated with it.
• Better and impartial enforcement of all behavioral policies (e.g. weight standards, uniform regulations, grooming, customs and courtesies, etc.) as one means of reinforcing bystander intervention.
• Lifting the “veil of secrecy” from the handling of sexual assault cases, and, military justice cases in general, noting traditional ‘Good Order and Discipline’ reports are not timely.
• Add a week of training to Coast Guard Recruit Training at Training Center Cape May, to administer the Apprentice Leadership Program (piloted in the 13th District) and to focus on core values and leadership issues, and, provide mentors to new members who can then ask, “Is this normal?”
• Reinforce the importance of trust within commands, as part of command climate.
• Engage a more robust evaluation of potential silver and gold badge chiefs, including feedback from junior personnel, and, expand the role of command chiefs in sexual assault discussions.
• Allow victim advocates to be present during investigative interviews and allow VAs to intervene if they believe the questioning to be inappropriate for the circumstances.
• Evaluate the effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s training system, with a general consensus that better training, not more training, is the right answer.

The recommendations are not yet actionable in and of themselves. Instead, they provide areas of interest upon which the service can focus its efforts.

“The Junior Council report was returned to the LEAD Council within the offices of the assistant commandant for Human Resources,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Rogers, who serves in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office. “[Human Resources] will respond to senior leadership’s comments on the report, with a proposed ‘way-ahead’ for each recommendation.”

Some of the recommendations are addressed by the ongoing work of the SAPC’s standing subcommittees. SITREP 2 highlighted some of the recent work of those subcommittees.

• From the Prevention and Advocacy Subcommittee:

o Victim advocate training: The service has temporarily suspended VA Training for the next few months to implement a more robust screening process for personnel seeking to become Coast Guard Victim Advocates.
o Consistent with the more robust screening process, an audit of all designated VAs and sexual assault response coordinators was conducted; ensuring background checks have been completed to determine their suitability to continue serving as VAs or SARCs.
o Unit indoctrination for SAPR continues to be refined with the provision of standard talking points for use by unit commanding officers and officers-in-charge during SAPR discussions with all incoming unit personnel, and the availability of a wallet card template within the command toolkit on the SAPR Program website.
o The SAPR MCO is tracking completion rates for mandated SAPR training, as it is a measured activity under the SAPR Plan of Action and Milestones. Overall, the SAPR mandated training compliance rate stands at 91.8 percent, which is an improvement from July’s 90 percent.

• From the Investigation and Accountability Subcommittee:

o Office of Special Victims Counsel: As described in ALCOAST 299/13, the SVC program is established and assigning SVCs upon request by an eligible victim. SVCs are active duty judge advocates that have also been trained and designated as victim advocates, and can provide legal assistance to victims in a confidential VA relationship throughout the investigation and any related proceedings.
o Coast Guard Investigative Service agents and judge advocates nationwide have obtained advanced training on investigating sexual assault cases. This ongoing training enhances sexual assault investigations and the coordination between CGIS and prosecutors.

• From the Assessment Subcommittee:

o An in-depth look at existing Coast Guard survey data is underway to highlight command climate and gender relations issues within the service. Results of the analysis will help direct future SAPR Program efforts.

SITREP 2 also highlighted some milestones in the SAPR Program, including the allocation of $5.8 million in annual funding and an additional 32 military and civilian positions to resource SAPR-related programs, the SAPR Program office and supporting elements including legal, Coast Guard Investigative Service and public affairs.

Ongoing sexual assault cases in the Coast Guard

While the service works to improve the SAPR Program, sexual assault cases continue to be brought before the military justice system. In keeping with the Coast Guard’s commitment to transparency, the 8th Coast Guard District announced four days prior to the release of SITREP 2 that a court-martial has been scheduled to hear charges brought against Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Bush, based upon the recommendation from an Article 32 Investigation held Sept. 6, 2013.

Bush is charged with sexual assault and possession of child pornography.

Bush has been in pre-trial confinement at the Navy Consolidated Brig Chesapeake, Va., since early June 2013. Bush was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Wyaconda, a 75-foot river tender homeported in Dubuque, Iowa.

Several days earlier the 17th Coast Guard District announced Coast Guard Fireman Apprentice Christopher S. Cooley, charged with attempting to commit sexual abuse of a child, failure to obey a lawful order, indecent conduct with a child and possession of child pornography, was sentenced by a military judge to seven years confinement, a bad conduct discharge, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances and reduction in pay grade to E-1. .

Cooley pled guilty at the general court martial to various violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice including three violations of Article 80, attempting to commit sexual abuse of a child and attempting to engage in indecent conduct with a child; one violation of Article 92, failure to obey a lawful order for contacting a child after being ordered not to; and one specification of Article 134, possession of child pornography which was of a nature to bring discredit upon the service and prejudicial to good order and discipline.

In accordance with a pre-trial agreement, confinement beyond 50 months will be suspended. Cooley will serve his sentence at Navy Consolidated Brig Miramar, Calif.

Cooley was assigned to an Alaska-based Coast Guard cutter when the offenses were first discovered. Cooley was in pretrial confinement because he posed a creditable threat to the community.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice is a complete set of criminal laws that covers most crimes contained in civilian law in addition to other military-specific offenses such as failure to obey an order, desertion, etc.

If you have been, or think you may have been, sexually assaulted, contact your sexual assault response coordinator, or call the Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247. Information about reporting options and resources for survivors of sexual assault can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program website.

The 8th and 17th Coast Guard District public affairs offices contributed to this blog post.

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