For over a decade, the Defense Department's Safe Helpline has provided a secure place for military survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones to get support and information 24/7.
The Safe Helpline staff is uniquely trained to provide specialized support to survivors in the military and can help connect service members to resources in the community, said Nathan Galbreath, acting director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
It's not just a referral service, although referrals to other resources are an important part of what Safe Helpline does as part of crisis support, he added. A Safe Helpline user can access one-on-one support, peer-to-peer support, information, resources and self-care exercises to aid recovery.
Those in need can contact Safe Helpline by:
Those eligible for Safe Helpline services are:
- Adult service members in the active duty, National Guard, or reserve component, as well as the Coast Guard and their family members 18 years of age and older.
- DOD civilian employees and their dependents, age 18 years and older, when employees are stationed or performing duties outside of the United States.
- DOD contractors who are U.S. citizens while authorized to accompany armed forces in a contingency operation outside of the continental U.S.
The Family Advocacy Program on each installation supports adult military family members who were sexually assaulted by a spouse or intimate partner and military family members aged 17 and younger who were sexual assault victims, Galbreath said.
Calls to the Safe Helpline hotline service are anonymous, so the staff does not ask questions to confirm eligibility prior to providing support. Galbreath said anyone contacting Safe Helpline will receive crisis intervention support by Safe Helpline staff.
If, during the conversation, an individual indicates he or she is not affiliated with DOD and not eligible for Safe Helpline services, the hotline staff will provide them with contacts to appropriate civilian or military resources. This includes referral to the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline for individuals from civilian communities nationwide.
"Safe Helpline is often the first line of contact for survivors seeking support and information after experiencing a Sexual Assault," said Tanya Banchs, senior victim assistance advisor of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "Safe Helpline staff comes from a variety of backgrounds with a passion to help people. They are not within the military system, so every call is completely anonymous and confidential."
Safe Helpline is often a first step in the process to accessing support for survivors. Following an assault, survivors may be hesitant to talk to someone on base for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, shame or guilt, she said.
Talking to someone they don't know and who doesn't know them may be easier for survivors who have not previously disclosed an assault. The anonymity and confidentiality Safe Helpline offers can often make reaching out for support easier, Banchs said.
The Safe Helpline staff understands survivors have different comfort levels with different responders, and many may not be ready to talk with someone face-to-face, she said.
For those ready to connect with someone face-to-face, staff members can provide referrals to on-base resources, including sexual assault response coordinators, sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates, military law enforcement, legal and mental health resources, she said. They can also provide referrals to local community resources.
Safe Helpline has served more than 200,000 men and women over the last 10 years, providing support or advice and a path to healing from sexual assault. Visitor volume has grown steadily over the past 8 years — from fewer than 5,000 calls or chats during fiscal year 2012 to nearly 50,000 in FY 2020, according to Galbreath.
Safe Helpline conducts an evaluation each fiscal year to measure program effectiveness. The evaluation uses aggregate, non-identifying data to understand Safe Helpline user characteristics and the concerns that brought them to the hotline. This can include information on whether survivors have chosen to report or not report an assault to law enforcement or their command, as well as if they intend to report. It also describes the barriers that Safe Helpline users have identified that prevented them from reporting. Information from annual evaluations helps the department provide necessary improvements in order to continually provide support and services to survivors, said Galbreath.
The Safe Helpline was launched in 2011 as the result of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military. Recommendation 27 issued in December 2009 endorsed the establishment of a universal hotline to enhance victim care and facilitate reporting by victims.
Safe Helpline serves as the department's sole hotline for DOD members affected by sexual assault.