News: Ombudsman Program Enters its 40th Year
Story by Darren Harrison
WASHINGTON D.C. - Whether assisting families moving to a new area, or providing support during a deployment, Navy spouses have been volunteering for almost four decades through the Navy's Ombudsman Program.
"When families respond to the challenges of deployments, natural disasters or family emergencies, ombudsmen are there to provide guidance and to help them regain a sense of normalcy. They help families find the answers to their questions, promoting their resiliency and self reliance," said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick D. West in a recorded statement recognizing the contribution of the ombudsmen as part of U.S. National Volunteer Week, which began Sunday. "Mission readiness is directly tied to family readiness, and family readiness is directly tied to the selfless dedication of our extraordinary ombudsman," said West.
The Ombudsman Program was introduced to the U.S. Navy, Sept. 14, 1970, by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. Zumwalt adapted the program from a 19th century Scandinavian custom originally established to give private citizens an avenue to express their concerns to high government officials.
"The program started on a small and informal scale and has since moved to a very formal, standardized training," said Ombudsman Program manager for Commander, Naval Installations Command Kathy Rock. "The policies and instructions are constantly being revised to meet the needs of the Navy family at a set period of time."
There are presently 63 ombudsmen in Naval District Washington and more than 4,000 ombudsmen worldwide. The Navy requires there be at least one ombudsman per 250 service members.
The Ombudsman Program is a command-based program with each commanding officer tailoring the program to meet the needs of the families. The commanding officer officially appoints an ombudsman who then undergoes 25 hours of basic initial training.
Following their initial training each ombudsman is then required to do six, three-hour advanced training sessions a year on topics such as child abuse prevention and sexual assault intervention. Additionally, ombudsmen are expected to attend monthly assembly meetings where ombudsmen are provided current information on programs or referrals that can benefit families and training.
Services provided by the Ombudsman Program are designed to steer families in the right direction so that issues can be resolved.
"Information and referral is a big part of what the ombudsman does, really trying to create this resilient family that can be self sustaining and not rely on others," said Rock.
For the majority of issues ombudsman are bound by confidentiality and cannot discuss information disclosed to them.
"Confidentiality is perhaps the biggest thing I have to stress with my ombudsman because once you break confidentiality your credibility to your command and your command families is gone," said Ombudsman program manager for Naval District Washington Sharleen Riddle.
However, there are some issues that the ombudsman are required to report including suspected child abuse or neglect, alleged domestic abuse, suspected or potential homicides, violence or life endangering situations, suspected potential suicide risks and other issues identified by the commanding officer as reportable.
"It is important to recognize ombudsmen because they are the direct line between the command and the command families," Riddle said. "A lot of times they deal with issues that are very personal and very emotional and they have to help those family members at that time of need and yet still be able to maintain their own professionalism and care for their own families."
According to Rock, for this year as of April 14, the Navy has already saved $523,464.75 by having volunteer ombudsman. In 2009, the Navy saved an estimated $1.4 million based on if the service had to pay the volunteers a wage of $18.77 an hour.
"Each ombudsman spends about 800 hours a year through volunteering which calculates out to an equated savings of about $15,000 per Ombudsman," said Riddle.
"Having an ombudsman allows the service member to focus on their job while they are away because they know their families are being taken care of," said Riddle.