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The wife of a military officer might not have endured a decade of his abuse if she’d been allowed to seek mental health counseling without having to draw in her husband’s chain-of-command, said Jupie Hamilton, a counselor at the Fleet and Family Support Center in Naples, Italy.

“She would have come forward to seek help for herself and her children and not have to wait until it was too late … until the violence got extreme,” Hamilton said, citing a real-life example from the States.

A new Pentagon policy gives domestic violence victims an added option. In the past, reports made by abused spouses automatically had to be reported up the chain-of-command and to military law enforcement.

The new “restricted reporting” option gives victims the power, in most cases, to decide whether abuse reported to medical personnel or family support counselors should remain confidential. The modification mirrors changes made in 2005 for victims of sexual assault.

Mental health professionals started telling victims about the option several weeks ago.

The policy falls short, according to Elle Pritchard, public policy director for the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for military-related victims of violence.

“This information can still be processed through the change-of-command and given to the alleged assailant, thus jeopardizing the safety of the victim,” said Pritchard.

Under the policy, officials must report abuse if they are concerned for the victim’s life. And health workers and counselors have the power to determine whether a report should become “unrestricted” despite the victim’s desires, she said.

Restricted reporting won’t protect one’s anonymity, for example, if the military must enforce a protective order or take legal action against the alleged abuser.

The policy does not affect any abuse involving a child, which must be reported to legal authorities.

“The policy is not really meant to stop the offender,” Hamilton said. “It’s to get the victim help and get them to start healing and looking for a better way of living. The theory is more will come forward if there is confidentiality.”

Victims in Europe have access to safe houses, typically through agreements made between the military and the host nation facilities.

Victims, especially military spouses, often are afraid to report domestic abuse, particularly if they are threatened with the loss of their children, housing or medical benefits that come along with being a dependent, Pritchard said.

Others might fear the “retaliation they may suffer at the abuser’s hands if they tell anyone outside the home,” Jena Wathen, supervisor for Counseling, Advocacy and Prevention at the Fleet and Family Support Center at Naval Station Rota, Spain, wrote in a base newspaper article on the issue.

Victims “are typically already being controlled in many aspects of their lives by their partners,” Wathen wrote. “Victims need some sense of autonomy or control over their own lives and decision-making in such a situation.”

Dealing with domestic violence

The military considers domestic violence to be “the use, attempted use or threatened use of force or violence against a person of the opposite sex” who:

Is a current or former spouseShares a child with the abuserShares a home with the abuserHas shared a home with the abuserThe military encourages victims to make “unrestricted” reports, thus allowing the military police and commanders to investigate the incident as a possible crime.

However, victims in many cases now have the option to request a “restricted” report to keep the incident and treatment confidential.

To make a restricted report, a victim must contact a family advocate or health-care provider, not a police or command official. The victim can decide at a later date to press charges, though medical workers are required to keep evidence for only one year.

Telling a chaplain about domestic violence also is treated with privacy, though the chaplain may encourage victims to seek other help as well.

People wanting help dealing with domestic violence may contact their local family advocacy program office, medical clinic or hospital, military police, a unit commander or chaplain.

— Stars and Stripes

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