WASHINGTON – One of the first things a military prosecutor tells a victim of sexual assault is that he does not represent her, he represents the United States.
It can be a jarring conversation for someone who might already feel disempowered, and having no one in their corner can exacerbate trauma symptoms from the attack, said Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
Now, the Air Force is trying to change that dynamic. Starting Jan. 28, Air Force members and their adult dependents who report a sexual assault can have a specially trained military attorney assigned to them.
Previously, the accused in a sexual assault case was assigned a military attorney to represent his or her interests, but the alleged victim was not.
The victims’ attorneys will be “completely independent,” with loyalty and confidentiality for the victim, said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force Judge Advocate General. To maintain this independence, the attorneys will work under the Air Force Legal Operations Agency and will not be assigned from the same base where the victim is located.
Victims who report a sexual assault in the military can choose to make their report restricted, which means the victim can receive care but will stay anonymous and not pursue a case against the attacker; or unrestricted. Either way, the victim will be assigned a sexual assault response coordinator and can request an attorney through the Special Victims’ Counsel program, Harding said.
In fiscal 2011, Harding said, 29 percent of Air Force victims who said they were willing to go forward with a case against their attackers declined to participate before the case reached court. He believes that many of those men and women change their minds because they are frustrated by the process and feel revictimized.
“The idea here was to provide the best victim support we could, and we think the best victim support that you can provide would include a counsel for the victim,” Harding said. “What we hope to gain is fighting that sense of anxiety, that sense of revictimization, that sense of not understanding why certain things are happening.”
Garvin, who helped in the creation of the program as well as the training of the military attorneys, said the program is “amazing, incredible and progressive” – but also necessary.
“We’ve known for a long time that crime is about power and disempowers you, and sexual assault in particular is about power,” she said. Giving victims an independent voice can alleviate trauma symptoms.
Institutionalizing the program, as the Air Force is doing, helps change the process and the system, she said.
Harding selected 60 Air Force attorneys from a list of nominations, and those attorneys will be able to help with everything from reassignment requests and non-contact orders to courts martial and appeals, he said. The attorneys can help victims with issues related to collateral misconduct and privacy rights and can request testimonial immunity from the government.
“We went out of our way to make sure we didn’t put walls around this thing,” he said. “The victims are Air Force members. … It is essential that we give them the very best care. That’s what one does in a family.”
The news of the Special Victims’ Counsel program comes as a congressional panel is preparing to hold a hearing later this month about sexual abuse in the military, prompted by a scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Six trainers have been convicted and two dozen more removed and accused of abuses ranging from rape to inappropriate relationships with recruits.
The hearing is likely to begin Jan. 23.