The Forgotten Warrior: Women Veterans and Sexual Assault
Women veterans seeking healthcare encounter unique challenges every day — because beneath a substance abuse problem, a PTSD diagnosis or physical health problem often lurks a history of past sexual assault, either before or during military service. Legal and healthcare experts who gathered at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting yesterday outlined many of those challenges and made suggestions as to how judges can better serve these veterans when they appear in courts.
Of the more than 23 million veterans in the United States, 1.8 million are women. Studies show that women who serve in the military have much higher rates of sexual victimization in their history. In a study of Army women in combat service or combat service support units, 22 percent reported they had been raped and 50.9 percent reported some form of sexual assault. Most were assaulted prior to their military service.
“This history puts them at higher risk for mental health and physical problems, self medicating with alcohol or drugs, suicide and subsequent sexual victimization,” explained Claudia J. Bayliff, an attorney who served as the first chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program and has consulted with the other Services on their sexual assault prevention strategies.
According to Bayliff, a majority of military sexual assault victims who report their sexual assaults describe having had a negative experience in the legal system, which made them reluctant to seek further help. For example, 83 percent of those who went through the military legal system (because the perpetrator was also military) reported a negative experience, and 65 percent of sexual assault victims who went through the civilian legal system reported a negative experience.
One of the key recommendations by experts is for courts to develop mechanisms for a full trauma assessment for victims. This is helpful because a woman who shows up in veterans court for a DUI arrest, for example, may have an underlying reason – such as a military sexual trauma — for self-medicating with alcohol.
Experts agreed that it is critical for courts and evaluators not to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” but rather, “What happened to you?” in order to holistically gather a person’s history.
Lynn Hecht Schafran, an attorney who develops materials about adult victims of sexual assault principally for the judiciary, said that when judges are dealing with issues of domestic violence it is critical to find out if the victim is also subject to sexual violence.
“A woman who is subjected to physical violence and sexual violence is seven times more likely to be killed than a woman subjected to violence alone,” she said.
Sexual violence as well as physical violence is also a telling indicator of potential violence against children.
“Children are dying across this country because some judges do not appreciate the impact of domestic violence on children, and the risk of giving these men full custody or unsupervised visitation,” said Schafran.
She strongly advocated for a detailed risk assessment process to gather victims’ information, adding that it is not easy to obtain because women are reluctant to reveal sexual violence at the hands of partners and this kind of information rarely comes out in the first interview.
Schafran reminded judges that if they send someone to a treatment program, to make sure that program has the resources to handle underlying problems such as a history of sexual assault, and can provide childcare for a veteran who may be a single mom. In many cases, women veterans required by the court to report to treatment programs are unable to find childcare, and as a result do not complete treatment, are eventually put in jail and wind up losing custody.
Many of these complexities can be worked out with the help of a veterans justice outreach specialist, said Linda K. Strite Murnane, a retired Air Force judge now serving in The Hague. The specialist is funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, acts as the liaison between the VA and local justice system partners and is responsible for outreach, assessment, and case management for veterans in local courts and jails.
“This is the person who can facilitate access to all the benefits to which a veteran is entitled,” said Strite Murnane. “The liaison is there in the courtroom with the veteran or available on a consultation basis for the court,” she said, to ensure that the court knows what is available for those who appear.
The VA also created a position to specifically help women vets. According to the VA, full-time Women Veterans Program Managers are in place at every VA medical center to provide training as well as outreach, education and support services for women veterans. There are also full-time female benefits coordinators in many VA offices.
Strite Murnane added that in these times of lean funding for state courts, it is imperative to work with a veterans justice outreach specialist to see that if a veteran who is, for example, in the criminal state system, can be transferred into an alternative federal treatment system that is federally funded.
Many state judges, understanding that veterans have unique needs, have set up – and continue to establish — veterans treatment courts around the country. These kinds of courts, which are a hybrid of drug and mental-health treatment courts — started in Buffalo, New York in January 2008. There are now approximately 51 of these courts in the U.S.