End Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
“One of the things that the soldiers at Fort Hood, what many of them needed was to be believed… If any of them see this, I want them to know we believe you.”
Military officials’ failure to respond appropriately to sexual assault and harassment at Ft. Hood is just the latest scandal in which victims of sexual mistreatment and domestic violence were retraumatized by the people who were supposed to protect them. The public is familiar with a long litany of such scandals that include the Catholic Church, college campuses, the military, boy scouts, Olympic officials, police departments, child protective agencies, and custody courts. Even after the “Me Too” movement, numerous scandals exposed, and research that confirms the problem is understated, society has yet to take effective actions to end the tolerance for these life-ruining, and sometimes life-ending crimes.
The disappearance and subsequent murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen was the tragedy that brought public attention to the Ft. Hood scandal. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy appointed a five-member civilian panel to investigate the scandal. The report resulted in discipline and removal for 14 senior military officials. The committee found there was a “permissive environment for sexual assault and harassment.” Sexual misconduct was far more widespread than previously known because the hostile response discouraged reports. Some of the victims faced retaliation for reporting crimes.
Soldiers entering the military know they can face danger from our enemies. They should not face danger from other soldiers because of their gender and the failure of commanders to take sexual assault seriously. The family of Vanessa Guillen is seeking federal legislation that would ask independent investigators to look into reports of sexual abuse allegations.
The problem is much bigger
The military investigation was correct to find that the victims needed to be believed. A reporter asked one of the victims at Penn State why he didn’t report Jerry Sandusky. The survivor said he didn’t think he would be believed. The same problem permeated the cases from the “Me Too” movement to the Catholic Church scandal. The research is clear that victims of abuse rarely make false reports, but the myth of false reports is often the excuse to protect the worst culprits.
Many years ago, three brave children told their mother that their father was physically and sexually abusing them. The mother did everything right. She made a report to child protective, sought custody, and asked for a protective order. Initially, the children were protected, and the father was limited to supervised visitation. The children told their story to the judge, their law guardian, the caseworker, and the evaluator. As usually happens in these cases, the “neutral” professionals assigned to protect the children assumed they were lying and threatened the mother with the loss of custody if she did not stop “coaching” them. The judge ordered unprotected visitation to resume. Before the first visitation, the family baby sitter confronted the father in the presence of the law guardian. He admitted to kissing his daughters on their privates. The law guardian immediately made a motion to stop the visitation, which I supported.
The judge spoke with the evaluator, who said the father showed bad judgment, but there was no reason to stop the visitation. During the first visit, the 4-year-old was penetrated for the first time. Child protective was unaware of the father’s admission, and so I made a new report. When the judge found out, he yelled and screamed at me. How dare you complain when they already investigated. This time a different caseworker investigated and found the father was doing far worse than we knew. They filed a complaint against the abuser, and he never again had anything beyond supervised visits.
The mother was awarded custody and invited the new caseworker and me to a celebratory dinner. The children had gifts for us but even better was their name for us. They called us BELIEVERS because we believed them when all the professionals who were supposed to protect them didn’t. I learned from these precious children that there is no greater honor than to be called a believer. It is a lesson so many people and professionals whose job is to respond to domestic violence and sexual misconduct desperately need to learn.
The Cost of Disbelieving
The family of Vanessa Guillen lost their beloved daughter and sister. The military harmed its reputation and lost well-trained soldiers who could defend our country. Numerous careers were destroyed. The Catholic Church lost billions of dollars and its moral authority. The “Me Too” movement exposed crimes that ruined the careers and often the lives of the victims. The individual victims often suffer unbearable pain and shame that is life-altering. Keep in mind our failure to believe victims encourage rapists and abusers to commit their disgusting crimes because they are so likely to avoid any meaningful consequences.
The United States spends over one trillion dollars every year to tolerate domestic violence. The cost of tolerating sexual abuse substantially increases the financial cost. Much of the cost is in health expenses because these crimes often have consequences that last a lifetime. The failure to believe increases crime both because the gendered crimes are encouraged, and some victims of abuse are more likely to commit crimes later. Many victims will never reach their full potential, so it is impossible to know the full financial cost of disbelieving victims. And, of course, the personal cost to the victims and their families is even worse.
The research is now clear that family courts are getting a majority of abuse cases wrong. The widespread failure to believe victims is a major factor in the courts’ failure. The Saunders Study found most court professionals do not have the specific domestic violence training they need, and this ignorance leads many professionals to be influenced by the myth that mothers and children frequently make false reports. The Bala Study found that in reality, mothers involved in contested custody make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time. These common mistakes by professionals inadequately trained for abuse cases forced children to spend much of their childhood trying to survive abuse. In failing to use the research and create needed reforms, the courts are stealing the one chance children have for a happy and successful life.
The Benefit of Disbelieving Victims
There is none.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.