If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.
The Maine National Guard proposed several steps to improve its handling of sexual assault and harassment, but didn’t address how it would prevent them from happening in the first place, or protect soldiers from retaliation.
The plan was outlined in a new report filed with the Legislature in which guard leadership pledged to improve its handling of sexual assault and harassment amid a push in the federal government to implement reforms.
It follows last November’s three-part Bangor Daily News investigation that revealed a recent spike in substantiated sexual assault investigations inside the Maine Army National Guard and a culture that is permissive of sexual harassment, improperly handles sexual assault cases and retaliates against women who come forward.
Lawmakers last spring ordered the guard to submit a report outlining how well it follows federal best practices for investigating and preventing sexual abuse. Guard leadership submitted the 22-page report last week and will discuss it with the Legislature’s veterans and legal affairs committee Friday.
The guard, which also includes the Maine Air National Guard, is asking lawmakers to give it a seat on Maine’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse Council. It also plans to create a partnership with the Maine Coaliton Against Sexual Assault, and says it will work with the governor’s office to create an advisory council to review its sexual assault and harassment policies to ensure they’re working.
The guard has already created two full-time positions to serve as better liaisons with victims and civilian law enforcement, which the guard relies on as the primary way to investigate reports of assault, according to the report. The adjutant general, the guard’s chief military official, will also start updating the governor and lawmakers regularly with information and statistics about the problem.
The organization also suggested legislation to strengthen its power to impose restraining orders on soldiers accused of assault while they are off base and make funds available to pay for women to travel to court proceedings related to their assaults.
Maine has not gone as far as other states whose National Guard units have faced sexual assault scandals. States such Vermont and Wisconsin called for independent investigations to identify the scale of the problem and flaws in the guard’s response to it.
Unlike independent evaluations from other states, the guard’s report provides no information or statistics about sexual assault and harassment in its ranks. Though the guard said it collects that information and surveyed soldiers last year about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault within the organization, it did not disclose the results of that survey.
Some women who spoke to the BDN last fall about their experiences reporting harassment and assault said the proposed measures seemed more like an attempt to save face than address the systemic cultural problems within the organization. One former staff sergeant who reported a sexual assault in 2019 also criticized lawmakers for relying on the guard to evaluate itself.
Gov. Janet Mills has asked the guard to “promptly” move forward with the changes, according to a spokesperson, and will soon issue an executive order to form the advisory panel and require it to make recommendations by Dec 1.
“The governor considers this report and the forthcoming advisory council as a first step in the effort to support members of the guard who have suffered sexual harassment or assault, and she is committed to working with them and the Legislature to that end,” said Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the democratic governor.
Following the BDN’s reporting last fall, the co-chairs of veterans and legal affairs committee, one of whom has since left office, said they would wait for the organization’s leadership to submit the report assessing its performance before commenting on the BDN’s findings.
Committee co-chairs Rep. Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough and Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, as well as Rep. Morgan Reilly, D-Westbrook, the sponsor of the legislation that required the guard to submit the report, declined to comment on the report Wednesday.