Fort Bliss, TX (KTSM) — More than 50 military and El Paso Sexual Assault Victim Advocates discussed methods to synchronize resources and interagency coordination at the 1st Armored Division Headquarters, March 20.
The over-arching theme was how to better investigate and prosecute sexual predators, while protecting and caring for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Attendees were representatives from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, Sierra Providence Medical Center, El Paso Center Against Family Violence, El Paso Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Rape Crisis Center, William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Fort Bliss Family Advocacy Program, Fort Bliss Army Equal Opportunity Office/Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention Program, Fort Bliss Staff Judge Advocates Office, 1st AD Division’s Surgeon Office and the Fort Bliss Criminal Investigations Division.
“This event is a great opportunity to build relationships with our counterparts in the Fort Bliss community,” said Lt. Col. Michael Harper, Fort Bliss EO and SHARP, program manager. “We’re honored to host the El Paso community Sexual Assault Response Teams and share details of our Team Bliss SHARP program with them.”
The SHARP program reinforces the Army’s commitment to eliminate incidents of sexual harassment and assault through a comprehensive policy that centers on awareness and prevention, training and education, victim advocacy, response, reporting and accountability. Army policy promotes sensitive care and confidential reporting for victims of sexual assault and accountability for those who commit these crimes, according to the U.S. Army SHARP web site.
To facilitate this commitment, the Fort Bliss SHARP team convened a seven-member panel to briefly introduce their agency and discuss how interagency cooperation can increase care efficiency for both service members and civilians throughout the El Paso community.
The Fort Bliss Family Advocacy Program generally cares for domestic violence victims and offers “safe haven” lodging for domestic violence assaults. The group also learned the Center Against Family Violence also has safe havens throughout El Paso and the STARs Rape Crisis Center can assist with “victim advocate bags,” which are emergency evacuation kits which may contain blankets, spare clothing or food vouchers to aide with a quick relocation.
Law enforcement officials briefly discussed how jurisdictional boundaries impact investigations and offered solutions to ensure proper protocols are followed to streamline investigations.
Although El Paso has several law enforcement agencies – such as the EPC Sherriff’s Office, Department of Homeland Security, El Paso Police Department and Highway Patrol – both military and civilian law enforcement personnel stressed the contributions from the El Paso offices of the U.S. Marshall and FBI with interagency investigations to assist with convicting offenders.
“I think [this] was a good dialogue, and they were able to better understand how [the Fort Bliss Criminal Investigation Division] operates and how seriously we take allegations of sexual assault,” said Special Agent Steven Ehrig, Fort Bliss criminal investigator. “I also think they were pleased to see that Fort Bliss CID has a civilian sexual assault investigator dedicated to building interagency cooperation and communication.”
“I am hoping that meetings like these will serve to improve interagency cooperation and communication,” he said.
Medical personnel discussed how their agency is working to protect military spouses’ and children’s privacy while working with law enforcement during suspected domestic violence or sexual assaults.
“William Beaumont Army Medical Center has a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’s Room available for the exams to enhance privacy and increase the process efficiency,” said Lettie Sprinkle, the WBAMC sexual assault nurse examiner. “[Also] If the victim of sexual assault does not want to report the crime to law enforcement, they may inform their decision to the responding [police] officer or investigator at that time and still receive the medical treatment and a forensic exam if requested.”
If you are not in the military and assaulted on Fort Bliss you can still receive treatment at WBAMC since the crime happened on federal property.
“Sexual Assault cases are considered trauma 2 level medical emergencies, these cases qualify for trauma emergency care since WBAMC is a level 3 trauma center,” Sprinkle said. “The hospital expense may be reimbursed by the Office of the Attorney General of Texas ‘Crime Victims Compensation Program.’”
Depending on the availability, WBAMC will even transport victims from a local El Paso hospital, once released by care providers, to WBAMC, Sprinkle said.
“Working collectively, we will share ideas, best practices, and most importantly, determine how best to support victims of sexual assault,” Harper said. “We will continue to build upon these relationships and the SART team will always have an open invitation to attend our future ethnic observances.”
“It was great to see representation from the city Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services Victim Advocates, the Sheriff Department, Sierra Medical Center, WBAMC and Fort Bliss collaborating for the common goal to provide the best response and care possible to all victims of sexual assault,” Sprinkle said. “Effective communication is crucial for any program’s success and this group is eager to achieve that goal.”
“My advice to anyone who feels unsure whether they have been abused or sexually assaulted is to, above all else, seek assistance. There are organizations in the Army, and in the civilian world, which specialize in assisting people with this very issue,” Ehrig said.
“The Army has the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, to work alongside Army Family Advocacy to help those unsure about sexual assault reporting, and not reporting.
“Above all else, they can provide assistance in getting medical, psychological, or law enforcement support, but only if the person wants it,” Ehrig said. “Unfortunately, all too often, people fear they will not be believed when they tell someone their story and that creates a barrier between them and getting help. The first step in combating abuse and sexual assault is to believe.”
For Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, 1st AD and Fort Bliss commanding general, the bottom line intent is to treat victims with dignity and respect, and turn victims into survivors.