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The voice of the victims

Special Victims' Counsel provides sexual assault victims legal assistance. SVCs are active-duty judge advocates whose role is to represent victims in a confidential, attorney-client relationship through the investigation and prosecution process. (U.S. Air Force courtesy graphic)

Special Victims' Counsel provides sexual assault victims legal assistance. SVCs are active-duty judge advocates whose role is to represent victims in a confidential, attorney-client relationship through the investigation and prosecution process. (U.S. Air Force courtesy graphic)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- Power: the strength to make a decision. Control: the means to carry it out. These things are the currency of freedom, and what are robbed from sexual assault victims.

"A lot of people think sexual assault is about sex," said Capt. Jonathan Henley, a member of the Special Victims' Counsel at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "But it's not; it's about power and control."

So what can a victim do when power and control of their body has been taken away, when their voice has been silenced?

There's a plethora of resources, each with their own unique role and the SVC is one of them.

In January 2013, the Air Force became the first U.S. military service to institute an SVC program. The driving force behind the program was Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, then-judge advocate general of the Air Force.

"Before the SVC program was created, two of the main players in the court process had an attorney representing them -- the accused had an attorney or two representing them and the government had an attorney or two representing the government's interests," said Capt. Jennifer Lake, a member of the Area Defense Counsel at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and first SVC at JBER. "But, then you had this other person who was going through this process, who had no idea what's going on in the legal world and has rights, but had not been provided with an attorney to defend those rights or to advocate for them and what they want."

While support for the victim was there, many felt that support could be fortified.

"So Lieutenant General Harding came up with the idea of appointing an attorney to represent the victim and what the victim wants," Lake said. "This way, the victim's voice can be heard throughout the process."

So what does an SVC actually do?

As it turns out, the answer is not nearly as simple as the question. The SVC does a lot of things, and their role largely depends on the unique needs of the particular client.

"I have an attorney-client relationship with the victim," Henley said. "If they're telling me what they would like to see out of it; then my marching orders are to advocate for those desires and their rights."

Sometimes that even means not seeking a conviction.

When reporting sexual assault, there are two paths one can take. They can choose to file a restricted report or an unrestricted report. The SVC can help with either case; however, the capacity they serve in depends on the type of case the victim has filed.

The main difference between the two is that an unrestricted report may spark a legal investigation process, whereas a restricted report does not.

In both cases, privacy and confidentiality are given a high priority.

"The victims have a right to privacy," Henley said. "That is paramount to any discussion regardless of the type of report being used."

If one wanted to file a restricted report with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office, they have the option to request legal advice from an SVC, even before filing the report.

"If a victim comes to me and says, 'I want to make a restricted report,'" Henley said. "I will go with them to the SAPR office to make that report and be by their side the entire time."

By doing so, the SVC is giving the reporter the power to make a well-informed decision when deciding whether or not to go unrestricted with their report.

"My role as an SVC (in a restricted report) was to answer questions for that person, clarify any concerns they may have, and help them understand what the legal process is, should they choose to go unrestricted," Lake said. "When someone goes restricted and they want an SVC, it's typically because they want to know what happens if they go unrestricted."

In an unrestricted report, the SVC serves as the victim's attorney throughout the military justice process. This relationship is completely voluntary; a reporter of sexual assault can choose not to be represented by an SVC or decide they want an SVC at any time during the reporting process, Lake said.

"At any point in time throughout the process, even two days before trial, someone could say, 'I'm getting a little nervous; I think I actually do want a lawyer, get me an SVC,'" Lake said. "Then they'll go through that process to get an SVC."

Throughout the entire reporting process, the victim should be informed of the benefits an SVC can provide them and advised on how to procure an SVC's assistance. However, SVCs cannot solicit cases, so they will not come to the victim, the victim must reach out to them.

"One big concern for victims is a loss of control," Henley said. "Coming forward is the first step to taking that control back -- I can't help but be proud of them."

The SVC is one way the Air Force continues to refine itself so every Airman, civilian employee and family member is equipped by their inalienable rights for a fair justice system.

"I think it's important for everyone to understand the SVC program; and giving victims a voice doesn't mean the victim's voice is what should control everything that goes on," Lake said. "It just means they get their say too.

"It's important that everybody's rights are protected and everybody is represented. Everyone should get to be heard, and then we make a decision."

Talking to an SVC may be a victim's first step toward taking back their power.

"They do have a voice, they have the power to make decisions and take back the control that was taken from them," Henley said. "My goal is, that through me, their voice can be heard."

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