Sailors Filing Sexual Assault Reports to Get More Options Under New Changes

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Sailor assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command San Diego, writes with chalk to spread awareness of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at the hospital’s courtyard April 7, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Woitzel)

The Navy has expanded its rules around the reporting of sexual assaults and transfers for victims in the latest of a series of changes that appear aimed at making it easier for victims to come forward.

Sailors now can make a "restricted," or confidential, report even if they've told officers in their chain of command, including their commanding officer, about a sexual assault, according to an administrative message that was released and went into effect Wednesday.

In turn, commanders who get a request for a sailor to transfer out of a unit or base over safety concerns after an assault now have five days instead of three to make that decision.

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Restricted reports are intended to give victims more flexibility and control over dealing with their assault by granting them access to medical treatment and advocacy options without taking away the choice to have their case investigated at a later time. However, restricted reports also rule out options such as military protective orders or transfers of either the victim or assailant until the victim decides to remove the restrictions.

By changing the rules around restricted reporting, the Navy has created more flexibility in a system that previously gave victims only the unrestricted option if they had already notified anyone in their chain of command about an assault. That option mandated a full criminal investigation, as well as the release of details of the assault to anyone with "an official 'need to know,'" according to the Department of Defense's website.

The website admits that a full investigation "can be stressful for victims of sexual assault" and that "much patience will be required" on the part of the victim.

The Navy also announced at the end of June that those who show up at any victim care and support office "must either receive services from that office or, with the victim's permission, get a 'warm hand-off' to the appropriate service provider." Dubbed the "No Wrong Door Policy," the Navy hopes the change will improve the sea service's response to victims of sexual assualt.

In some cases, commands have been doing a poor job of tracking referrals made on behalf of victims for services in instances where the sailor chose not to file a report.

"Regardless of which supporting professional they contact, the answer should be, 'I will help you,'" Ashish S. Vazirani, the interim director of the Navy's Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, and Suicide Prevention and Response Office, said in a press release announcing the policy.

Sailors and Marines who do choose to make an unrestricted report should no longer have to worry about charges stemming from any minor infractions they may have committed leading up to an assault, based on another policy change announced June 30.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, the service's civilian leader, said that "removing this barrier empowers victims and survivors -- they should not have to choose whether to implicate themselves by reporting a crime committed against them," in a press release announcing the change.

The Navy's examples of what it would consider to be "minor eligible misconduct" include underage drinking near the time of an assault, having an unprofessional relationship at the time, and curfew or off-limits violations such as barracks policies.

Before the change, the Navy noted that there was no protection for victims against facing charges stemming from their own misconduct, forcing them to "choose whether to implicate themselves for misconduct by reporting an assault."

These changes come amid other legal reforms that are forcing the military to change the way it deals with sexual assault. Driven by the death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was sexually harassed by a supervisor and later murdered, allegedly by a different soldier, at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2020, lawmakers enacted reforms to take sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and child pornography prosecutions outside of victims' chains of command and give them to independent special trial counsel.

Another change tha would impact all service branches and is working its way through Congress now would add sexual harassment to the list of crimes handled by the special trial counsel.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Congress Pushes to Remove Sexual Harassment Prosecutions from Chain of Command

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