WASHINGTON, D.C. — Often, when survivors of sexual assault are “put on the witness stand, they can feel like they’re being attacked,” said Capt. Dustin Kouba, a special victims counsel attorney. “I feel like I’m almost defending them … I’m like their big brother.”
The Air Force is taking the lead on providing special counsel to survivors of sexual assault, spearheading a pilot program for the Department of Defense.
The goal of the Special Victims’ Counsel is to ensure the best possible care for our Airmen, who report they are the victims of sexual assault, by providing independent legal representation through an assigned Air Force attorney. Within 48 hours of the victim requesting the SVC, the SVC will contact the victim and remains their SVC throughout the entire legal process.
The SVC Program started in January 2013. Once attorneys are selected to be SVCs, they attend additional training at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
“What the course does is focus on what is required of JAGs for their new role in representing victims versus serving as trial counsel, which is what they already had experience in,” said Capt. Allison DeVito, who is the chief of the Victim Issues and Policy branch for the Air Force.
To build the course, the Air Force worked with leaders in the civilian sector. The initial three-day course, which has since grown to five days, builds on training they’ve already received in military justice, DeVito said.
The SVCs can “help guide the victim through the military justice process and help them come out on the other end, regardless of what the result of the court-martial is, feeling that they made the right decision to come forward in the first place. That that was the right thing to do – to report the sexual assault.”
Sexual assault victims can file two different report types – restricted and unrestricted. With an unrestricted report, the government is able to conduct an investigation which could result in disciplinary action, including a court-martial prosecution of the accused.
Since the start of the program, over 300 sexual assault victims have been represented by SVCs, including 22 victims who had made restricted reports.
“Of the 22 restricted reports, 12 have made that decision to go unrestricted, a 55 percent conversion rate” DeVito said. By comparison, in fiscal year 2011 13 percent of restricted reports were later changed to unrestricted, she said.
Though only a small percentage of SVC clients are restricted, a common denominator has surfaced among victims – a need for advice.
“From the restricted reports that do come to us and request counsel, we’re finding that the number one reason is they want advice on the decision to make an unrestricted report — that’s exactly what an SVC is intended to do,” DeVito said.
She said the SVC is there to “provide information on what the process is going to look like, so that a victim can feel more comfortable and confident about the decision to come forward.”
What can an SVC do for me?
The SVC brings a lot of support and training to the table, including:
* Victim’s rights law
* Privacy issues
* Housing issues
* Civil law issues
* Workplace reprisals
* Full spectrum victims’ issues
In its short existence, the Air Force is tracking its performance closely, and feedback from SVC clients has been positive.
Airmen provided the following feedback, DeVito said.
“My SVC was so supportive, and helpful. He was always there for me when I had any questions, and he showed me that he wasn’t just doing his job, but that he cares about his job and his client. I don’t know what I would have done without him during the process.”
“When you’re a victim you don’t know who to trust. The SVC gave me that trust I needed. Also, everything with her was confidential and that made me feel more safe. It was nice having someone to speak for me and to help me.”
“I believe that an SVC provides comfort and confidence when you have had so much taken away.”
Meeting the victim
Reading through victims’ comments, the relationship between SVC attorneys and their clients appears to be strong.
“That first time meeting them, every single time, it’s been a great experience,” said Kouba, who will become one of 24 fulltime, regional-based SVCs. “I think they’re relieved to finally have me there. And I’m relieved to be there.”
When Kouba meets with his new clients, he has one goal he wants them to know — “I’m here to help you. That’s why I’m here.”
And sometimes, when he meets them, he doesn’t say much. He just lets them talk.
Sometimes they feel like they’re not being heard, Kouba said. That’s when he feels the best thing to do is “sitting down, listening to them, helping them come to the conclusion on what we should do to move forward,” he said.
Kouba said he often feels responsible to his clients like a big brother can feel about a younger sibling.
“I look at it as if there are three teams. The government trial team, the defense team that is supporting the accused, and I’m on a third team. I’m directly supporting the survivor,” said Kouba, a native of Grand Forks, N.D.
With the sensitivities he faces with clients, Kouba reminds himself that “the person that’s coming into my office is exposing their inner-most secrets to me. They’re having to relive a terrifying event over and over again.”
At the end of the day, sexual assault is a horrible thing, but the Air Force is staying out front, providing what DeVito refers to as a response team.
The desire to provide victims with the very best response team, which includes other support services such as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Victim Advocate, medical and mental health care, in addition to the SVC, has led to Congress proposing a bill on May 7 that would require each service to have an SVC program.
According to the bill’s description, it “directs each military department Secretary to implement a program providing a Special Victims’ Counsel to a victim of a sexual assault committed by a member of the Armed Forces.”
For DeVito, providing support to survivors of sexual assault is much more than checking a box, it’s helping out a fellow family member.
“We’re the Air Force. We’re a big family. And now we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure [Airmen, who are survivors of sexual assault, are] supported – emotionally, physically, mentally and legally.”