LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – In continuing the war against sexual assault, the Air Force recently established the Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) Program, designed to give sexual assault survivors legal assistance in navigating the criminal justice system with help from lawyers trained to handle their unique needs.
The SVCs provide direct legal advice to clients throughout the military justice process, and ensure the clients’ rights are being observed and protected by advocating on their behalf both inside and outside of the courtroom. Ultimately, SVCs aim to encourage survivors of sexual assault to seek assistance from military legal professionals.
Survivors of sexual violence can take advantage of SVC counseling upon making a report to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), victim advocate, military criminal investigator, victim/witness liaison or legal office attorney. These base agencies are obligated to inform the survivor of the availability of legal assistance from the SVC.
When the SVC office is notified by one of these agencies that a survivor requests support, the office determines the victim’s eligibility and assigns a specially-trained attorney to provide counsel.
“While we understand there are a variety of circumstances that lead an individual to report a sexual assault, such as talking to a first sergeant, supervisor, co-worker, friend or spouse, the main goal is to get the victim the support they need and allow them the opportunity to seek legal guidance from an SVC,” said Tech. Sgt. Alan Salmones, a paralegal from the Andrews Region SVC, which supports survivors from Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Capt. Dustin Kouba, an Andrews Region SVC attorney, said that even if a survivor wishes to make, or has made, a restricted report, they remain eligible for SVC support. Restricted reports of sexual assault can be made through the SARC or the victim’s primary care manager.
Air Force attorneys, like any other attorney, owe ethical duties and privileges of confidentiality to their clients. These duties come directly from state bar rules of professional conduct and the Air Force Rules of Professional Conduct, and encourage clients to make “full and frank” disclosures to their attorneys, who are then better able to provide candid advice and effective representation, Kouba explained.
“Our office, like the [Area Defense Counsel], is completely independent of the command and base legal office. We are not bound by the chain of command’s practices or reporting procedures,” Kouba said. “SVCs advocate the interests of their clients, not of the Air Force.”
In the near future, Kouba said perspective clients will be allowed to contact the SVC office directly without making a report. Subsequent meetings are covered by the same ethical rules and confidentiality agreements as reports, guaranteeing survivor confidentiality even if they ultimately decide not to use the program.
Though the SVC attorneys are not located at each installation, they remain flexible in providing counsel to clients. In instances where an SVC cannot meet with the client face to face, telephone correspondence will be the main source of contact.
“SVCs will always travel to Article 32 hearings and courts-martial, and will attend interviews if feasible. If they cannot attend, every attempt will be made to have the SVC available via telephone and advise their client appropriately,” Salmones explained. “Overall, the SVC is there to advise their client whenever the client has questions and needs legal advice.”
Counseling is available to all Air Force active duty, reserve, and Air National Guard victims who are in Title 10 status at the time of the offense and report they are a victim of sexual assault.
Additionally, all active duty and reserve members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including Army National Guard personnel in Title 10 status at the time of the offense and report that they are a survivor of sexual assault, are eligible for SVC counseling when an Air Force commander exercises jurisdiction, or when the perpetrator is an Air Force member.
All remaining categories of eligibility for the SVC program fall under Air Force Instruction 51-504, Legal Assistance, Notary, and Preventative Law Programs, which governs who is eligible for legal assistance depending on their location and circumstance.
“It takes a strong team to succeed in our mission to protect and defend the nation, and sexual assault undermines that,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III when announcing the launch of the program in January. “It’s devastating to those involved. The Special Victims’ Counsel will provide victims of sexual assault with a better understanding of the criminal process from an expert who is specially qualified to represent the victim.”
“This program embodies what the Air Force is all about: taking care of our people,” the general said.