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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 2, 2021

Expanding victim support: Ombudsman policy update removes mandatory reporting of sexual assault

The Coast Guard is continuing to develop new strategies to support members who have been sexually assaulted. One of the major initiatives underway now is to eliminate the barriers victims face when they simply want to talk things through with someone, without limiting their options to report the assault in the future.
A recent example is the new policy allowing members to confide in their ombudsmen. Previously, ombudsmen were required to report alleged sexual assaults to the command. The new update removes that requirement, highlighting the Coast Guard’s trust in ombudsmen’s discretion and professionalism.The policy change evolved from numerous reports and member feedback.
Now, when a victim turns to an ombudsman for support, the conversation can stay between them.
“The goal is to reduce as many barriers to reporting as possible, and also provide the best support services to our CG family,” said Michelle Underwood, who manages the Sexual Assault, Prevention, Response and Recovery program. “We want to look at policy from a victim-centric point-of-view, so that we can help more people.”
Underwood continued, “Our hope is that the new policy -- and the reputation of the ombudsmen as skilled and respected extensions of the Coast Guard Team -- allows ombudsmen to assist victims without compromising their reporting options.” 
Another recent policy change also expands victims’ ability to seek confidential support. Last year, the Coast Guard updated policy so that sexual assault victims can to confide in another person (e.g., roommate, friend, and/or family member including military or civilian spouse) without affecting their reporting options. 
Christine DeGraw, the ombudsman program manager, notes that discretion still needs to be used. She stated, “If people are expressing behaviors that compromise their readiness or safety, that could be something that the confidant may report,” she said.
“It’s now really up to the ombudsman, as the trusted confidant, to determine if the person is in danger. All confidants should report any life-endangering situations to the proper authorities.”