WASHINGTON, April 22, 2014 – Measures to battle the “insidious” crime of sexual assault must start at the top, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today during a visit to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to meet with the staff and receive a briefing on the Safe Helpline set up three years ago for sexual assault victims in the Defense Department.
Hagel acknowledged parallel issues of sexual assault and harassment in the civilian sector, but praised the recent milestones of the military-centric Safe Helpline, lauding its services to more than 300,000 people who have sought information about the crime.
“Any big problem in society that is resolved has to begin at the top. … Every leader in the military is focused on this,” Hagel said. “So it is important that our people in the military institution know that the secretary of defense is very focused on stopping sexual assault in the military.”
And more than 22,000 people have sought one-on-one sexual assault assistance and crisis support securely and anonymously through the Safe Helpline’s online chat, telephone and texting helplines.
Notably, dozens of multi-colored sticky notes with brief messages of gratitude and optimism from survivors adorn the walls of the call center. “This is really the defining dynamic of what you’re doing,” Hagel said. “You are changing the world for the better.”
In remarks to the staff, the secretary re-emphasized that sexual assault is a serious crime both in the military and society at large, with no easy solution at hand.
“Our people in the military come from society; we reflect society,” Hagel said. “You’ve got to inculcate your people so that they have personal responsibility for their own behavior and conduct. We know we’ve got a big challenge out there.”
Hagel said DOD leaders try to bring trust, confidence and credibility into the department’s sexual assault reporting system. “It takes a lot of courage to take on a perceived system [that] has to go down to every level of leadership in our military,” he said.
The network’s staff members briefed the secretary on Safe Helpline’s multi-faceted resources, which also include a mobile application, a peer support service and a texting referral service, said Jennifer Marsh, RAINN’s vice president for victim services.
“We know that the survivors are diverse, and we needed to pull out content for male survivors, for example,” Marsh said. “One of the most visited pages on the website is Understanding Sexual Assault, so people are coming here to get information, and it may not be necessarily immediately follow an assault. It may be a few years out, and they may not understand why they’re having trouble sleeping [or] why they’re depressed.”
Marsh said coming to the site can validate and normalize such emotions, which hopefully will spur a survivor to engage in a chat session or telephone call.
For transitioning service members, RAINN staffers said, they realize the inherent stress of going into the civilian realm and have taken special considerations as a result.
“It brings up all those stress reactions they felt during the time of their assault,” Marsh said. “So if we were able to provide them with information regarding housing, employment assistance and some of those vicarious issues that may be their primary stressors, we are helping to address the long-term effects of the sexual assault.”
The site is user-friendly and designed to bring multiple resources to one source for all service member survivors, Marsh explained. “It’s exciting, innovative and unparalleled in the civilian realm,” she added.
But Marsh acknowledged the need for service members to connect to their peers. And though RAINN staff members realized people were using other online chats, she said, they sought to create a more enhanced and secure experience.
“We used an online, hotline platform — so no transcripts, no [Internet protocol] address, and we created this peer support service that’s moderated by a licensed clinician.”
Marsh also noted that a second staff member reviews each participant’s group chat post before it reaches the main group with a brief delay to ensure there is no personally identifying information or abusive language.
“The connections we’ve seen on that are pretty powerful,” she said. “Our licensed clinicians, the moderators, said it’s some of the best group work that they’ve done.”
She said that bringing male and female survivors together to talk out their experiences has produced great results overall.
“People leave feeling like they’re not alone and like they’ve helped somebody else, which we know is a big part of the military,” Marsh said.
She also lauded the usefulness of the Safe Helpline mobile application, which she said allows people to connect to services from anywhere in the world. “If they download this before they deploy, they can use our VOIP service to call Safe Helpline for free, they can access their [sexual assault response coordinators], chat on the helpline, and they can create a plan.”