Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Start By Believing: Embracing The Movement

Eric A Barreras, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, US Coast Guard District Eleven
EVAWI, Associate Board Member


Words are important. They can be interpreted differently from person to person, and that interpretation stems from our life experiences. I attended my very first End Violence Against Women International conference in New Orleans back in 2015. At that time, I was a civilian Supervisory Special Agent with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and had approximately 14 years of investigative experience, most of which involved sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.

When I first heard the Start By Believing phrase several years ago I was a little reluctant to embrace it. After all, at that time I was a detective who built a strong reputation for being able to substantiate or refute reports. My main concern revolved around the idea that if I embraced and vocalized a response in line with believing, it would make my investigation appear biased. In my heart I felt this would invite almost any defense attorney to introduce the notion that I did not give their client a fair shot, meaning I built the case around the Start By Believing concept and not the facts. 

Later in 2015, I transitioned into sexual assault advocacy work. During that change, I wholeheartedly felt I could focus on believing. After all, that is the job of an advocate. As an advocate, I have come to realize just how powerful believing someone can be. It’s empowering. It’s supportive. It’s absolutely necessary for recovery. Especially with survivors who are dealing with self-blame or doubt. I have also come to the conclusion that feelings and emotions are far more powerful than words. By believing, we are able to attack the primary advantage predators have relied upon for years - disbelief. 

If you’re an advocate, Start By Believing should be a given. If you’re a police officer, military leader, supervisor, someone’s friend, relative or co-worker, Start by Believing is critical to achieving your end goals, which is serving others and making our community safer. Why is that? Because someone who does not feel supported will have a hard time coming forward.

The fact that an extremely small percentage of offenders are actually held accountable for their actions should raise concern for all of us. It’s time to eliminate our immediate response of disbelief, and that requires us to at least Start by Believing - regardless of your connection to the victim/survivor, or the profession in which you serve.

If you’re still struggling with this concept, I can understand that. I know that my inability to fully embrace it as a detective was wrong. I understand that now. It just took me awhile to understand why.

If the most precious person in your life was sexually assaulted, would you want them to be believed? I’m inclined to think that everyone would respond with a resounding “yes.” Perhaps by collectively embracing Start by Believing, we will change culture in such a way that predators will find it extremely challenging to operate.  If so, we will also increase the likelihood that offenders will be held accountable. All we have to do is simply Start by Believing.

EVAWI has published several training bulletins to address some of the questions that might be raised by criminal justice professionals and allies.  We encourage you to click on the links below to learn more:  

Start by Believing:  Evaluating the Impact of a Public Awareness Campaign Designed to Change the Community Response to Sexual Assault (July 2013)

Start by Believing:  Participation of Criminal Justice Professionals (September 2016)

Start by Believing to Improve Responses to Sexual Assault and Prevent Gender Bias (August 2017)

The Investigating Officer’s Direct Exam: Strategic and Tactical Considerations to Take Advantage of the IO’s Expertise (June 2018)