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At the 2014 American Bar Association Midyear Meeting, Col. Dawn D. Hankins and Capt. Amanda K. Snipes spoke about the Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel program, which trains Air Force lawyers to advise sexual assault victims. The panel, “Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel Program: One Year Later,” was held Feb. 7 in Chicago.
The Special Victims’ Counsel program launched in January 2013 with the training of 60 judge advocates to become part-time special victims’ counselors and 24 JAGs to become full-time SVCs. The program consists of JAGs and paralegals who provide legal assistance to and represent victims of sexual assault.
Before the SVC program, victims were not provided a lawyer to represent them. With the new program, victims can get an SVC who works for them, provides legal advice and representation, and specializes in sexual assault cases.
Hankins said there are perceptions in the media and elsewhere that there are 26,000 sexual assaults reported in the military, yet the number of prosecutions is minimal. While this perception is not true, the goal behind the SVC program is that it will increase trust and confidence of victims in the military justice system. With increased trust and confidence, the hope is that more victims will report the crime, stay in the system and result in increased victim care and support.
The purpose of the SVC program is threefold, Hankins said. It provides advocacy, protecting the rights afforded to victims in the military justice system. It provides advice, developing victims’ understanding of the investigatory and military justice processes. And it empowers victims, removing barriers and giving victims a voice.
The program allows victims to “feel like they’re not getting retraumatized by the system,” Hankins said.
The SVCs themselves are well trained. They must be certified as trial counsel, Hankins explained, and recommended for the post by their immediate boss. They must also complete an approved SVC course.
The assignment ranges from 18 to 24 months. “It can be an emotionally demanding and draining job,” Hankins said.
The SVC’s role is first and foremost to take care of the client’s needs, she said, and to protect the client’s privacy interests.
Common victim concerns, Snipes said, include privacy (protecting mental health records, prior sexual history), respectful treatment and safety. Some clients may also struggle with feeling alone and self-blame.
One of the challenges Snipes said she faces as an SVC is access to information. “There is not a lot of guidance about what victims’ attorneys get,” she said.
Other challenges include court scheduling conflicts and exclusion of victims and SVCs from the courtroom.
Recent successes, Snipes said, include using a “comfort” dog in court proceedings and obtaining a second opinion on mental health diagnosis.
A year into the program, SVCs have represented 660 victims, Hankins reported. “There is a high demand for our services,” she said.
In addition, SVCs have attended 110 courts-martial and 122 Article 32 hearings (pretrial hearings), Hankins said. SVCs have also attended more than 930 interviews with investigators, defense counsel and trial counsel.
Eighty one percent of clients are active duty Air Force, and 90 percent of clients are female, Hankins said.
At the end of the representation process, victims are surveyed. The Victim Impact Survey “tells us how we can improve,” Hankins said, explaining that the survey asks for feedback not just about the SVCs but about the military justice process in general.
According to the surveys, 90 percent of clients were extremely satisfied with the advice and support of the SVCs. Ninety eight percent would recommend that other victims request an SVC.
The key to the program’s initial success is “dedication to the mission,” Hankins said. The result has been improved victim care. Victims are “making more informed choices and are more aware of their rights,” she said.
The SVC program has been so well-received that the secretary of defense directed all of the military services to implement victims’ advocacy programs that provide legal advice and representation by fiscal year 2014.
In the future, Hankins said she hopes to continue to grow the capabilities of SVCs, including training and resources and identifying best practices. The hope is to expand to child victims and victims of other crimes.
The panel was sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.