Special Victims’ Counsel is here to help survivors

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

She was an officer with nearly nine years of service, who had been selected for promotion. She joined some colleagues on a weekend camping trip to take advantage of the summer weather. After enjoying a bonfire and games, they all settled in for the night, but one man, a fellow officer, didn’t. He came into her tent after everyone else had fallen asleep, without invitation or welcome, and sexually assaulted her.

The next morning, she took the first steps toward justice and reported the assault. Her Sexual Assault Response Coordinator immediately informed her she had access to a variety of services including a Special Victims’ Counsel, a personal lawyer who serves as a SARC victims’ advocate. She was also made aware that these resources were available to her whether she chose to make a restricted or unrestricted report. The Special Victims’ Counsel is a service every Airman should know of, but should never have to use.

An SVC is a military attorney who specializes in representing victims, including those who need help and don’t feel safe, of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking, and similar crimes, whether the victim is using restricted reporting or unrestricted reporting. A base SVC office consists of an attorney and a paralegal, both of whom have experience in the military justice system and work independently of their local command.

The SVC has three roles: Advocate for the victim by protecting their rights, advise a victim by developing the victim’s understanding of the complex military justice system, and empower the victim by removing barriers to their full participation in the military justice system.

The legal process took time, but the captain’s SVC was with her every step of the way, even helping to change her work environment, ensuring she never had to be around those involved in that camping trip again.

“My SVCs were monumental in my ability to survive this last year and a half of my life,” said the survivor, whose name is being withheld to respect her privacy. “I was first assigned a lawyer, Maj. Helen Guthrie, and she was by my side every moment since the day I was assaulted. So, I immediately began to tell my story to her and try to gain some understanding of the situation.”

After Guthrie transitioned out of active duty, the survivor requested an SVC who met her personal needs. Her new SVC was Capt. Susan Bet-Sayad, whom she said made her feel comfortable and was helpful because Bet-Sayad had experience in similar cases and understood much of the survivor’s background.

“Throughout this process, I ensured consistent communication between my client and the prosecution team, as well as her command,” said Bet-Sayad, who is currently stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California. “I safeguarded her privacy and ensured she was treated with dignity and respect, and was a buffer between her and the defense counsel. I also made sure she received services from the supporting agencies available to her. Additionally, I communicated on her behalf to her leadership to guarantee that protective measures were put in place for her safety and well-being.”

The SVC also ensured her client was prepared for a court martial, advising her on the process and making sure she understood her legal rights. The accused was convicted of sexual assault, breaking and entering, as well as physical assault, and given a five-year sentence in prison and a dismissal, the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. That legal process took the combined resources of the SVC, SARC, and legal office’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program program, which ensures that all victims and witnesses of crime who suffer physical, financial or emotional trauma receive assistance and protection.

“Everyone involved, from the legal team to the prosecution team, was extremely professional, knowledgeable and helpful,” Bet-Sayad said.

SVC staff are specifically trained to work for victims, attend investigative and military criminal or administrative proceedings, and advocate on their behalf to commanders and prosecutors. All Airmen and dependents who are victims of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and other offenses, are eligible for representation from an SVC. Victims of other types of crimes can also request an SVC under certain circumstances.

SVCs represent victims at every step of the military justice process to enforce their rights, Bet-Sayad explained. This includes representation of clients at law enforcement interviews, trial and defense counsel interviews, every pre-trial hearing, and at courts-martial. They enforce victims' rights to safety, privacy, and right to be treated fairly and respectfully. SVCs engage with base leaders and other decision makers to ensure that a victim's voice and choices are heard. SVCs also assist clients in obtaining support and recovery resources.

“We focus on what’s best for our clients,” Bet-Sayad said. “The SVC is independent of the base’s chain of command. We don’t work for the wing commander, the Staff Judge Advocate, SARC or OSI. We will always work for the client, and will always protect the client’s confidences with attorney-client privilege.”

In her various cases, Bet-Sayad has advocated on behalf of her clients to secure military protective orders, informed them on how to get civilian protective orders and helped them with the paperwork necessary to obtain civilian protective orders. She has also engaged with the leadership of the accused and advocated that the accused’s weapons be secured in the armory until resolution of the allegation.

Airmen and dependents who have experienced sexual assault, stalking, and certain other sexual misconduct have been eligible for SVC services in the Air Force since 2013. As of Dec. 1, 2020, domestic violence victims also can request legal services from an SVC for assistance within the military justice system. Under certain circumstances, victims of other types of crime may also be able to request an SVC.

Although many Airmen are familiar with the services of SVCs, some of the other legal entities involved in the process may not be as well-known, but also provide valuable resources. The Air Force Legal Assistance Program helps service members, their dependents and retirees resolve civil legal issues such as divorce, child custody, identity theft or violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, said Lt. Col. Lanourra Phillips, Legal Assistance Policy Office chief at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

“Service members who become victims of crime can seek the help of base legal assistance attorneys at any time,” Phillips said. “If the legal assistance attorney cannot help the service member, the attorney will help the service member find another agency or attorney who can help. In some cases, such as incidents of sexual assault or certain domestic violence cases, the legal assistance attorney will refer the service member directly to a local SVC.”

Both SVCs and legal assistance attorneys provide confidential legal advice to Airmen and dependents. In addition to these, the VWAP is also able to assist all victims involved in a military investigation or adjudication. The VWAP exists within Air Force legal offices to work with commanders, investigators, prosecutors, and other helping agencies to ensure that victims and witnesses are kept safe, informed of their rights, assisted in navigating the military justice process, and provided updates on ongoing military cases. The VWAP can assist victims in obtaining military or civilian protective orders, and can assist stalking victims with requesting expedited transfers.

For more information about the SVC, Airmen and Space Professionals can reach out to their local SVC office. For those bases without an SVC, members can contact their base legal office, SARC, or Family Advocacy office to locate their servicing SVC. For legal assistance and VWAP support, contact your service military legal office. The Air Force Legal Assistance Locator is available at https://legalassistance.law.af.mil/.