Doors open at first AF collocated sexual assault victim support facility

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Thomas Trower
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A collocated Special Victims' Council and sexual assault response coordinator office began operations here June 3, marking an Air Force first and the arrival of a revolutionary Air Force pilot program, providing specialized legal assistance to victims of sexual assault throughout the United Kingdom.

Housed in a dedicated facility, the SVC office is run by Capt. Micah Smith, the regional SVC, and Tech. Sgt. Tiana Martel, a special victims' paralegal. The mission of the new full-time organization is to support victims and assist with understanding legal proceedings across the region.

"We're here to empower victims and give them a voice," Smith said. "We're navigating a complex legal system, and we can't expect victims to know everything that is going to happen."

"The SVC is a homerun for the Air Force," said 2nd Lt. Ustem Nu, the SARC at Royal Air Force Lakenheath. "The reporting process can be somewhat daunting, particularly the legal aspect of it."

In the courtroom during sexual assault cases, ethics regulations prohibit trial counsel from giving legal representations to victims. Since the prosecutors, also known as judge advocates, represent the U.S. government, the victim is not their client. This can leave victims feeling overwhelmed, Smith said.

"We're there specifically to support the victims," he said. "We're not a secondary prosecutor."

"Offenders are given Area Defense Counsel, whereas victims are assigned a (victim/witness assistance provider) and work with the JA, Smith said. Although their objectives may be similar, JAs are acting on behalf of the Air Force, not necessarily the victim, leaving somewhat of a gray area. The SVC fills that area, providing legal counsel and support solely for sexual assault victims."

In a recent visit, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force Judge Advocate General, praised the 48th Fighter Wing's efforts to create the first collocated SAPR and SVC stand-alone facility in the Air Force and, in doing so, setting the benchmark for other bases to emulate.

"Both the SARC and the SVC are dedicated to the victims of sexual assault; essentially we are fighting the same fight," Nu said. "Sharing a building is the next logical step. Aside from that, it's more practical for victims not to have to go to two different places. It benefits victims because we are in a location that promotes confidentiality, which can be one of the biggest barriers of reporting."

All of these SVC support functions are provided without fear of intimidation from prosecution or defense attorneys thanks to the ability to operate independently of local military leadership, Smith said. While performing SVC duties, Smith works directly for the Air Force Legal Operations Agency to eliminate perception of career ramifications following disagreements.

Air Force officials first launched the part-time SVC program Jan. 28 and in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 7, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III emphasized the improvements the program has already seen.

"In the past, we had about a 30 percent rate of unrestricted-report victims who would decide not to continue with prosecution after they began the process of investigations, interrogations, questioning, et cetera," Welsh said. "So far, of the 268 represented by special victims' counsels, we have two, which is a huge improvement, (allowing) us to prosecute more cases over time which is key to moving forward in this area in my view.

"More victims are willing to change to an unrestricted report and allow us to investigate because they are more comfortable having a legal adviser who is with them (throughout) the entire process," Welsh continued.

To be assigned to SVC, victims who meet certain criteria simply speak with the SARC to receive a referral. Reports are handled on a case-by-case basis, but counsel is generally provided to any Airman on active-duty orders, regardless of the perpetrator. Also, if the perpetrator is an Air Force member, the adult dependent can use this program, and others may qualify depending on the situation. In all cases, the SARC is the first stop for support.

"Notification of the SVC is part of our initial intake," Nu said. "We are required to inform the victim of this option as soon as possible. Those who are ineligible for the SVC can receive the same support as before. They can still be assigned a victim advocate and speak with any of the helping agencies on base."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal voiced his advocacy of the model the Air Force has developed at the March 7 Armed Services Committee meeting.

"I have joined two of my colleagues, Senators (Barbara) Boxer and (Kirsten) Gillibrand, in urging that funds be made available to every service to follow the model that the Air Force is setting in this regard," Blumenthal said. "... (This) kind of representation of victims or survivors is so critically important to enabling and encouraging them to come forward and report these predatory crimes."

Smith and Martel each received specialized training prior to assuming this responsibility. Experts in military justice and legal ethics, as well as from a civilian expert on counsel for victims, provided practical exercises designed to familiarize students with potential scenarios they will encounter in the field, said Smith. A cornerstone to the training was developing a basic understanding of victim psychology, including assisting victims who emotionally detach after being overwhelmed or victims who try to normalize the proceedings.

"We're shown how to help (and understand victims as) a person, not a piece of evidence," Smith said. "It's all about empowerment."

To discuss SVC options, clients should contact their local SARC office.