“I don’t know what to say.” I’ve said this more times than I can count, even though I know (from times people have said it to me) that it isn’t the least bit helpful. But in those moments when someone reveals something life-changing, I feel obligated to respond, even if I don’t have a good response, because nothing is scarier than opening up to someone you trust only to be met with a blank stare and the sound of your own confession resonating in the air. You want an answer. You want support. You want encouragement.
We don’t always know the best step forward for someone, and, if we don’t know what resources are out there, it can be hard to direct someone to the right care.
Knowing what to say and what to do
One of the perks of blogging for Military OneSource is I was able to go directly to a valuable resource in the military community, a Family Advocacy Program victim advocate, and ask the questions that could help me — help all of us, really — in a case of domestic abuse. The victim advocate walked me through the steps of how to respond if someone in the military community reaches out to me for support.
After speaking with the victim advocate, I know I should stop whatever else I am doing to give my full attention to the admission of abuse. A personal disclosure like this takes a lot of courage, and I want it to be clear that I’m listening and engaged. Since I’m not a professional, my job is to be supportive and connect the victim to help as quickly as possible, not mediate the situation or give advice that could potentially increase the severity of the abuse.
In an emergency situation, always call 911, but if the situation isn’t urgent, the Family Advocacy Program offers support and resolution in cases of domestic abuse within the military community — this office would be my first suggestion to a domestic abuse victim, but it’s important to know that it isn’t the only option. In any case that isn’t an emergency, you can also point victims to:
- Base security — Call your local nonemergency installation security line if the domestic abuse is happening on an installation. (Note: Notifying commanders or law enforcement is considered an Unrestricted Report. This allows the greatest opportunity to use command resources for the safety and support of victims. However, your report will not be confidential.)
- Local police — Call your local nonemergency police line if the abuse is happening off the installation.
- The service member’s chain of command — You can find this information through your installation directory, a friend or you may already have it on hand.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline — Report anonymously at 800-799-7233 or chat online.
- Your local domestic violence program or YWCA crisis hotline — Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or Military OneSource to find the number.
If you decide to reach out to the Family Advocacy Program or you connect a victim to the program, know that it exists to protect victims of abuse and help military families, not to break them up or get the service member discharged. And, you can find the contact information for your installation’s Family Advocacy Program office on MilitaryINSTALLATIONS — type the program name and your installation for the local phone number and address.
But, just seeing a phone number can be a bit intimidating. It might help a victim of domestic abuse to know who will be on the other end of the line and what will happen after that initial call. So, remember that a call to the Family Advocacy Program is a step toward safety. And, to remove the uncertainty and intimidation, here is exactly what you can expect when you make the call:
- Referral — Victims can call, or someone — like a doctor, police officer, counselor, commanding officer or witness — can call for them.
- Safety assessment — Give as much information as possible. This is how those helping you know if your life or the lives of those around you are in danger.
- Reporting — Victims have two options: restricted or unrestricted reporting. Restricted reporting does not initiate an investigation or notify the victim’s or abuser’s command. This is only an option for adult abuse — not children — and the information can only be shared with a military treatment facility or family advocacy staff. Unrestricted reporting lets victims pursue an official command or criminal investigation, in addition to receiving medical and counseling services. (This is the only reporting option if the service member’s command already knows about the abuse.)
- Safety plan — The victim advocate makes a plan that the victim is OK with and runs through it in case of future incidents. This can be anything from avoiding certain scenarios to military or civilian protective orders.
- Risk assessment, case management and closure — If you decide to make an unrestricted report, you will continue to work closely with the Family Advocacy Program through interviews, the creation of a treatment plan and progress checks to reach a case closure.
What if I see abuse before I hear about it?
A victim who is ready to seek help is easy to assist. This victim’s eyes are open to the situation, and all this person needs from a friend is support. But, this isn’t always the case. Often there are warning signs long before a victim is ready to make a move toward help. Many victims are:
- Belittled, shamed or embarrassed — Listen for phrases like “You can’t do anything right,” name-calling or put-downs. You might also pick up on body language that suggests it’s happening behind closed doors. You might also catch a threatening look, typically right after the victim says or does something.
- Jealous of friends and freedom — Look for friends who are always excited to hear about plans, say that they need to check before committing to a plan, and can never make it or flake at the last second.
- Discouraged from seeing friends or family, or not allowed to see them at all — Have you seen or heard about this person’s family or friends?
- Often not allowed to make decisions on their own — Listen for things like, “Let me ask my spouse first.” This can also apply to money — victims might have to ask permission before spending any amount of money.
- Told they are bad parents — You might not always hear this, but offenders can keep control over a victim by threatening harm to the kids or threatening to take them.
- Kept from working or attending school — Listen for someone who talks about specific dreams or goals, but has no desire or confidence to follow through.
- Pressured to use drugs or alcohol — Look for signs of alcohol abuse or drug use (both prescription and illegal drugs).
- Pressured into sexual acts they aren’t comfortable with — Look for body language that suggests pain, discomfort with social touch (like a pat on the back or hug) or self-consciousness.
- Intimidated by weapons or destructive behavior — Be tuned in if a pet suddenly goes missing or has an unexplained injury. Look for signs of unrepaired damage around the property.
Domestic abuse doesn’t happen in my home, but statistics show that it could be happening in my neighborhood. And my neighborhood isn’t unique — it’s just like yours. Unfortunately, domestic abuse happens everywhere. If you’ve witnessed a combination of the warning signs above or you see marks of physical abuse, like bruises, burns or cuts, you aren’t wrong to suspect abuse. And knowing how to respond to a victim or suspected abuse may save a life.
Now we all have so much more to say than, “I don’t know what to say.”