DoD Sexual Assault Prevention, Response Advocate Certifications Grow

May 27, 2016 | BY Amaani Lyle , DOD News
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The Defense Department’s campaign to combat sexual assault is moving forward as reflected in the steady submission of applications from sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates for accreditation through the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program, Pentagon officials observed recently at the National Organization for Victim Assistance headquarters here.

Since 2012, NOVA has been contracted with the department to manage the certification process. The program professionalizes DoD sexual assault victim advocacy by ensuring that all response coordinators and victim advocates are equipped to provide victim-centered assistance to survivors, from initial report through case conclusion.

Dr. Margaret Harrell, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, conducted a site visit at NOVA on May 19. She met Richard Barajas -- NOVA’s executive director, who is a retired chief justice of the 8th District Court of Appeals in Texas -- and DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program committee members, and she toured an office humming with activity as committee members reviewed more than 3,000 applications received that quarter from military members and DoD civilians.

“Because the department takes so seriously the need to provide high-quality assistance to victims, it’s tremendously important for us to ensure that we have the right individuals as SARCs and SAPR VAs and that they are trained, credentialed, and certified to the standards that are recognized as the very best,” Harrell said.

Sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates certified through the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program join a rising cadre of professional advocates who uphold the highest standards of care and privacy and are dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault begin their path to healing, officials said.

Five years ago, the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, the military services and the National Guard convened a working group to explore the best approach for implementing a sexual assault victim advocacy certification program as required in fiscal year 2012’s National Defense Authorization Act. The group agreed to create the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program using nationally recognized standards rooted in the civilian National Advocate Credentialing Program, launched in 2003.

The DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program was designed to meet and even exceed National Advocate Credentialing Program standards, and its first application was received in September 2012 by an Air Force sexual assault response coordinator.

Since the program’s launch, NOVA’s assistance in processing tens of thousands of applications has been well received by the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, officials said.

Selection and Certification

All military and DoD civilian response coordinators and victim advocates must be certified through DoD’s certification program to provide sexual assault victim advocacy services. After selection for their roles, they must first complete their service’s National Advocate Credentialing Program pre-approved initial victim advocacy training. Next, individuals complete either the DD Form 2950 or DD Form 2950-1 to initiate or renew their credentials.

Throughout the process, sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response program managers serve as key sources of information and guidance, even assisting applicants to ensure accuracy and completion of their application packages. 

First-time applicants must submit two letters of recommendation. Sexual assault response coordinators must submit references from their supervisor and commanding officer, while victim advocates are required to submit references from their supervisor and sexual assault response coordinator. 

Applications are collected on a quarterly basis, with the next submission deadline scheduled for July 31. Each application is carefully evaluated for completeness prior to being evaluated by the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program Committee. 

“We work nonstop around-the-clock to try to get all applications printed, processed and entered into our database, making sure candidates are notified quickly if there is something missing,” said Neeley Hughey, the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program’s deputy program manager. “This way, we can get it corrected before the D-SAACP Committee convenes.” Hughey explained the multistep application management process to Harrell during an introductory brief.

First-time and renewal applications are reviewed by at least two civilian subject-matter experts who have a minimum of four years of victim advocacy experience in the field. These individuals take either paid or unpaid leave from their civilian employment to participate as committee members, officials noted.

Within five business days of the committee’s review of an application, the candidate receives an email announcing the results. About a month later, he or she receives an official certificate, a letter from the director of the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and a personalized wallet card declaring their certification. 

Expanded Skillsets, Improved Care

Once people are certified, their credentials need to be renewed every two years. 2016 marks the second year that response coordinators and victim advocates are applying to recertify their credentials.

Program participants can achieve four levels of certification that signify their breadth of experience in working with victims. Thirty-three percent of sexual assault response coordinators who renewed their credentials in 2015 were certified at a higher level – a promising sign that military and DoD professionals who come alongside victims are expanding their skill sets and are able to deliver improved support as a result, officials said.

Certification renewal requires 32 hours of victim advocacy continuing education. Ideally, officials said, coursework should be conducted in person whenever possible, and it should augment the individual’s skills and knowledge, versus replicating prior training.

Service sexual response prevention and response offices can recommend an array of continuing education options. A strong transcript for certification renewal generally includes two required hours of ethics and a mix of victim advocacy, prevention and response coursework, officials said, adding that candidates are encouraged to stay at the cutting edge of victim care by selecting learning opportunities that explore emerging issues and trends.

“The level of engagement we are seeing from the services is exciting to us – it’s clear that the DoD seeks qualified people who will stand ready to help survivors of sexual assault in the military.” said Jeanette Adkins, chair of the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program Committee They want people to be trained and prepared, and we’ve seen that happening since the program evolved.”

Adkins also noted that what began as a collateral duty has grown into a much more proactive volunteer effort among service members, with remarkably positive effects based on people simply wanting to help others heal.

“Moreover, we’re seeing folks decide to become dual-credentialed under both the military and civilian programs as they transition to the civilian world as an advocate,” Adkins said.

Victim advocacy can grow beyond a job responsibility and into a rewarding vocation for many. In the past year, the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program saw 58 service victim advocates bridge their certification over to NACP and pursue a civilian career in victim advocacy upon their discharge from the military.

As a sexual assault program director for more than 32 years, Adkins said, she wouldn’t hesitate to hire a service sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate. “I’d bring them on board immediately, because I know that they have met the standard in training, continuing education and on-the-job experience,” she said.

Advancing Victim Support

Hughey said she has noticed a tidal change in the candor and open discussion about sexual assault, dialogue she said has shed much-needed light on the issue.

“We’re seeing people share stories and even singers – such as Lady Gaga – write songs about their experiences as sexual assault survivors. This is creating a greater impetus for organizations and people to get involved and come alongside victims of sexual assault,” Hughey said. “Certified victim advocates can be the voice for a survivor when that person may not yet have the strength or the courage to speak up.”

Hughey said she hopes that victim advocacy can become more commonplace.  

“If I was talking to you at a party and you asked me what I did and I replied, ‘I’m a victim advocate,’ you would know exactly what that means,” Hughey said. “It would be as if I said I was a nurse or a social worker or a doctor.”

“To see [the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program] come this far in the last four years is just amazing,” she added. “There are so many leaders and members of the DoD community who are passionate and strive to not only ‘know their part’ but ‘do their part,’ too.”

 (Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)