Role-playing: Preparing victim advocates for demanding task

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Maria Moreno wanted nothing to do with Master Sgt. Heather Shelton, her victim advocate, in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office here.

Moreno, playing the role of a cadet, slumped into a chair, arms folded, her glare tossing daggers at the floor.

"I didn't want anything to be reported, and some stupid classmates blurted out about it," Moreno, a victim advocate with the SAPR office, said when Shelton asked what brought her to the SAPR office.

"I'm very sorry to hear that happened, and I'm going to help you as best I can," Shelton said. "Is there anything I can do to make this more comfortable for you?"

In another office, volunteer victim advocate Ken Rivera sat with David Kintz, the SAPR office's volunteer coordinator, role playing a scenario in which a young man had been drugged.

"Contacting this office is the right thing to do," Rivera assured Kintz. "We want to do everything possible to make sure you're safe."

Kintz, as the victim, asked one question for which Rivera didn't have an immediate answer. He said he'd call someone to find out.

"You need to let the emotional dust kind of settle, put first things first," he said. "I'll make some phone calls for you."

The role-playing exercise is designed to give victim advocates a sense of what they might encounter when they work with victims of sexual assault and prepare them not just for frequently asked questions but for the emotional strain as well, Kintz said.

"It's nerve-wracking because you feel like this is your first," he said, "but it gets easier. Mainly, the role-play is important because we don't know what we're getting into and how it may affect us."

Victim advocates must establish enough of a rapport that a victim will open up when they ask questions, Kintz explained.

"Ask open-ended questions," Kintz added. "Let me tell my narrative. Give me the option to let you know what happened to me."

As part of the report process, victim advocates fill out a Defense Department Form 2910, "Victim Preference Reporting Statement," and a DD Form 2965, "Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database Intake."

The 2910 explains the options available to victims depending on whether they choose to make their report restricted, so it does not trigger a law enforcement investigation, or unrestricted, so it does. Moreno advised volunteer victim advocates read the form, in its entirety, to make sure victims understand their rights under both options and that they get answers to their questions.

"Don't go straight into the form," Moreno said. "It's important, but it's most important to connect with that victim. ... Get through the crisis mode, then do the paperwork."

While victim advocates don't have to fill out the form right away, they must fill out the form at some point during the initial contact, Moreno said. Victims must also be able to understand and consent to either an unrestricted or restricted report.

Cases like the one Moreno role-played are also important because some victims who did not want to report their assault may have been referred to the SAPR office by their commander through third-party reports. Victims who would prefer not to cooperate have that option, Moreno said, and can request a Special Victims' Counsel to represent them.

"'You had the choice (to report) taken from you, but these are your options now.' Give victims some of their control back," Moreno said.

Memorial Hospital offers sexual assault forensic exam kits, or SAFE kits, to victims who report their sexual assault to the Academy's SAPR office. While law enforcement agencies receive the kits, they are stored by case number to preserve the restricted report option. Volunteer victim advocates visited Memorial Hospital to learn about SAFE kit handling as part of their week-long training.

The DD 2965 allows victim advocates to report details about the assault such as when and where the assault took place, whether weapons were used and whether alcohol or drugs were involved. The form is destroyed once the details are entered into the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database.

Throughout the process, Kintz said volunteer victim advocates should remember they're making a difference for the victims they support.

"Know that you're the person I'm looking to as a victim. You don't need to be nervous or scared," Kintz said.

"It's a human being who's been hurt," Moreno said. "That's how I try to approach it. If you're nervous, just try to connect with them. The human being who's in front of you, who's hurt -- that's the most important."