Join our brand new verified AMN Telegram channel and get important news uncensored!

Report asks for better communication on sex assault cases at Maine National Guard

Maine National Guardsmen (Maine National Guard/Released)

The Maine National Guard and civilian police should communicate and collaborate more, with victims and each other, to improve the handling of military sexual assault cases, according to a new report from Maine’s attorney general submitted to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The report was required by legislation last year that directed Attorney General Aaron Frey to evaluate how well the guard works with local police to investigate allegations of sexual assault between soldiers. The guard primarily relies on local law enforcement to investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment, in instances where the harassment rises to the level of a crime.

The review was among several oversight measures and reforms enacted by lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills last year after female soldiers spoke out about a predatory culture on the Army side of the guard in a 2021 Bangor Daily News investigation.

This is the third report in a year that evaluated the guard’s practices. In December, a newly established advisory board issued a more expansive slate of recommendations on how to prevent sexual abuse and better support survivors. Two months earlier, in September, the federal National Guard Bureau examined Maine’s policies but stopped short of investigating its toxic culture.

When soldiers pushed lawmakers to take action on the guard’s culture last spring, at least one lawmaker wanted the state’s attorney general to see whether it could uncover evidence of criminal conduct that should be prosecuted.

Ultimately, however, the attorney general said in his report on Wednesday that it would be too difficult now to assess old cases or to “second-guess the discretionary calls made by prosecutors to charge, decline or resolve cases.”

“Beyond the logistical and resource challenges of locating and interviewing [former witnesses and victims], the charge of [the law] did not justify the risk of retraumatizing victims years after these matters had been closed,” the report said.

Instead, Frey’s office opted for a more limited “paper review” of past cases, in which the office collected and analyzed records of past allegations.

The attorney general’s office asked the state’s eight district attorneys to provide records of sexual assault and harassment investigations between members of the guard over a five-year period ending on March 31, 2022, as well as the dispositions of those cases. It made the same request of Maine’s state, county, municipal and tribal police agencies.

The office also asked the guard for a list of alleged sexual abuse suspects and victims, then searched for those names among the information they gathered from civilian law enforcement agencies.

Three of the state’s eight prosecutorial districts reported no complaints. Two prosecutions involving guard members are currently pending in the prosecutorial district comprising Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.

In other districts, law enforcement said they investigated allegations passed along by the guard but ultimately did not refer the case to prosecutors because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a crime or because the victim didn’t want to move forward.

Guard officers often contacts police on behalf of victims, but not always right after the report of abuse, the report found. Sometimes, too much time passed to bring a case, or the victim expressed reluctance to work with law enforcement. Some survivors preferred that the guard look into the matter instead of police.

Anecdotally, prosecutors described inconsistent points of contact within the guard about who they updated about a case. Sometimes it was a victim advocate; sometimes it was a military lawyer; and other times it was with the victims themselves.

The guard also doesn’t appear to track the outcomes of cases it refers to police, as the BDN has previously reported.

Rep. Laura Supica, D-Bangor, said her greatest takeaway from the report was that even if the guard and local police can improve their communication, the systems that survivors rely on to report and investigate their abuse still seem so daunting that they can deter or confuse the people they are supposed to help.

“The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking about the history in this country where the system can actually retraumatize survivors of abuse through the act of reporting, of having to go prove what happened. There were instances of insufficient evidence [in the report] because so much time had passed [before the women came forward],” said Supica, who is the newly appointed co-chair of the Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs committee.

Indeed, the BDN’s reporting found that women often had inconsistent experiences when they told the guard or local police they had experienced sexual violence or misconduct. Sexual abuse is also widely under-reported in general. In the Maine Army National Guard, many soldiers said they were afraid to come forward because they have watched others face retaliation for doing so. Many said they don’t trust their allegations to be properly investigated.

“I know this will be a topic we will continue to talk about [in the coming Legislative session] and we will continue to look for solutions,” Supica said.

The attorney general made several recommendations to increase communication between the guard, law enforcement and victim services. It also acknowledged that the guard may already be implementing some of the recommendations following pressure from soldiers last year. They are:

— Prosecutors, police and victim advocates should receive specific training about how to collaborate with the Maine National Guard on sexual assault cases. For example, the Maine Prosecutors Association could invite state military officials to its annual conference.

— Police should make sure they comply with a 2019 state law that requires them to inform local prosecutors of every sexual assault complaint within 60 days of receiving it, regardless of whether the police agency believes there is enough evidence to prosecute. It wasn’t clear to the attorney general’s office during its review whether police were notifying prosecutors within the timeframe required by law. The law was created as a way for prosecutors to provide additional support to victims during sexual assault investigations.

— Prosecutors, detectives and victim advocates should help train state military officials on Maine’s sexual assault and harassment laws and the civilian criminal justice process.

— It’s unclear whether civilian law enforcement agencies refer victims to support services. Police should explain to victims their options at the start of an investigation, including what the investigative process will be like, and connect them to support services such as the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.


(c) 2023 the Bangor Daily News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.