Illustration by Chad Wys
In the military, spouses who are experiencing abuse are told they have a place to turn: the Family Advocacy Program, or FAP, a Department of Defense program that’s available in all branches and accessible on every base where families are stationed. FAP provides advocate support not only in cases of domestic abuse but also sexual assault, sexual harassment, child abuse and neglect and problematic sexual behavior in children and youth.
But HuffPost learned from many survivors we interviewed for “A Forgotten Crisis,” our investigation on domestic violence in the military, that FAP resources vary widely across different branches and bases.
On some bases, advocates are well-trained, responsive and helpful. In other places, survivors reported feeling unsupported by FAP advocates. Some women said when they reached out to FAP, the abuse was downplayed. Some were dissuaded from making a formal report after they were told they might hurt their husband’s careers. Others were referred to marriage counselors untrained in domestic violence.
Individual FAP offices would not comment on the record for HuffPost’s investigation. We reached out to military public affairs, who said in response to our questions that “victim advocates remain available to provide support to endangered victims.” We did talk to one FAP employee who did not want to be named, and she offered a more candid look at the program’s operations.
Toni, whose name we’ve changed to protect her privacy, has been a victim advocate with the Marine Corps’ FAP on the East Coast for three years. She’s the primary point of contact for victims of domestic violence, child abuse and intimate partner sexual assaults.
When asked if she thinks FAP is doing enough to respond to domestic abuse, her answer was no.
“They definitely need some reform. I don’t think they know what to do. I don’t think they know how to help,” she said.
Toni, whose background is in the civilian criminal justice system, said she signs up for as many advocate-specific trainings as she can fit in her schedule, but she told HuffPost not all of the additional education she opts for is mandated by the Marines. The only requirement is to initially complete 40 hours of advocate training and 15 continuing education credits a year. Where she receives the trainings and what topics she chooses are up to her.
“I wouldn’t specifically say the Marine Corps has given me the trainings ... I do the trainings on my own, whenever I can,” she said. “It’s up to me.”
She told HuffPost she’s taken classes in mental health issues, the cycle of abuse, offender manipulation techniques, the escalation of abuse and force and how trauma affects children in the family, which she feels prepares her for helping survivors. She also attests her current CO, or commanding officer, is “very proactive and has a zero tolerance for ... sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence,” but says this unfortunately isn’t the case everywhere.
“You do get commanders where the mission is more important. I’ve had some commanders say, ‘Hey, this person’s a liability, can we just move the spouse back to the family and be done?’” she said. She’s seen cases of emotional abuse get swept under the rug, even though advocates by and large warn that nonphysical abuse is most often a precursor to more violent forms of physical abuse down the road. Statistically it’s been shown that abuse hardly ever dissipates on its own, but rather, is far more likely to escalate over time.
But when a spouse contacts FAP to report her servicemember husband has been degrading her, threatening her or controlling her or the finances, some commanders will see this as more of a nuisance than a red flag.
“I think the mission is always first, so for them [commanders], it’s OK this is happening,” she said.
While Toni and other FAP advocates like her can help spouses create a safety plan, file a restricted or unrestricted report (depending on if they want their spouse’s command to be aware of the problem), refer spouses to counseling options on base or other advocacy services in the civilian world, they are not decision-makers when it comes to punishment. They can make recommendations to command — this servicemember is dangerous — but it is up to command whether or not to heed that warning.
Many times, says Toni, her job amounts to treating the offender instead of the victim, referring them to a program called STOP, a class for offenders to teach them, per its name, how to stop abusive behaviors.
“They’re mandated by command to come, but after that, then what?” Toni said. “Half of them are processing out or being kicked out anyway ... then you have this person processed into the civilian sector continuing the same thing. “
And, she added, the military provides no protection for the victim once their servicemember spouse is discharged. Toni suspects the military wants the abuser to be discharged because, in essence, it’s then no longer considered the military’s problem.
“I think, with the Marine Corps, they are really big on getting rid of the problem child,” she said. “So, they’ll get rid of you, wash their hands of you and go on to the next person.”
This story is part of “A Forgotten Crisis,” a series on domestic violence in the military.
Are you a military spouse experiencing abuse? There are places you can turn for help. Find your local Family Advocacy Program by visiting militaryonesource.mil, reach out to HealingHousehold6.org for military-specific support in times of family crisis, or speak to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area or locate the nearest domestic violence shelter by visiting DomesticShelters.org. You can also speak to a supportive advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.