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Midyear 2014: Special Air Force counsel advocate for sexual assault victims

Midyear 2014: Special Air Force counsel advocate for sexual assault victims

By John Glynn

At the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting, Col. Dawn D. Hankins and Capt. Amanda K. Snipes will speak about the Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel program, which trains Air Force lawyers to advise sexual assault victims.

The session “Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel Program: One Year Later,” sponsored by the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division, will take place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, at the Swissotel in Chicago.

The Special Victims’ Counsel program kicked off a year ago 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.  

The Air Force’s top lawyer, Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding, explained the program to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last January: “Our Special Victims’ Counsel will operate independently of the prosecution’s chain of command, establish attorney-client relationships and zealously advocate on their clients’ behalf … thereby protecting victims’ privacy and [helping] preclude victims feeling revictimized by having to endure alone a complex, exhausting and often confusing criminal justice process.”

Air Force attorneys represented nearly 600 alleged victims of sexual assault within the first 11 months of the program’s January 2013 launch, the service reported. As of early December, SVCs had represented clients in 96 Article 32 hearings, which are similar to preliminary or grand jury hearings, and 97 courts-martial.

Air Force leaders hoped that by providing attorneys to sexual assault victims, more would agree to see their cases through to court-martial. About a third of victims generally back out after agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of their alleged attackers.

“Obviously, a concern is the underreporting of the crime,” Hankins, chief of the Air Force Special Victims’ Counsel Division, said in a September article in the ABA Journal. “We’re hopeful that maybe the idea that they can have an attorney who represents their rights and helps them get through the process … might encourage some folks to come forward who otherwise wouldn’t.”

Hankins told the Air Force Times in late January that so far, however, the program has not led to more victim participation. “I do think we’re allowing our clients to make more informed decisions,” she said.

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