GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Soldiers, dependents and civilian employees who are victims of sexual assault are entitled to immediate, 24/7 legal advocacy through specially-trained, licensed attorneys in the U.S. Army’s Special Victims Counsel program.
Special Victims Counsel: What is it?
The Special Victims Counsel is a Department of Defense program enacted in November 2013 to provide military victims of sexual assault with a specialized attorney and confidential, comprehensive and exclusive legal representation. The attorneys, known as special victim counsels, are available to victims at any hour, on any day.
Aside from being state-licensed lawyers and Army-certified judge advocates, SVCs also complete several in-depth trainings to better serve and support sexual assault victims of all ages and backgrounds, said Capt. Jon Womack, USAG Bavaria Special Victims Counsel.
“Before the Special Victims’ Counsel program, victims who reported crimes often times felt left in the dark during the investigative and military justice process, which can take several months.” Womack said. “SVCs are legal professionals who give victims a voice and guide them through the investigation and court martial, which can be very daunting for someone who is unfamiliar.”
Unlike defense counsels and prosecutors — whose loyalty rest entirely with Soldiers accused of a crime or the government — SVCs are full-time, 100 percent victim advocates. They only represent victims, Womack said.
According to the program memorandum, sexual assault victims can request an SVC immediately after reporting an incident.
For restricted reports, or cases with very limited disclosure and no official investigation, SVCs can meet with victims and provide legal counseling and guidance. Victims who file an unrestricted report — prompting judicial intervention and a formal investigation — are eligible for full legal representation throughout the investigation and military justice process, said Womack.
“Services are limited in restricted reporting, but we can listen and give them confidential legal advice,” Womack said. “It’s important to ask victims about their objectives. For example, if they want personal space and time to consider their options while still receiving the appropriate medical treatment, legal assistance and counseling, then a restricted report is a good option for them. If they seek a military protective order and want their assailant to be held accountable through the military justice process, or if they want to request an expedited transfer to another duty station — or even to another unit within Germany — this would require moving the report to unrestricted.”
All Soldiers and their dependents, as well as Army civilian employees, who file an unrestricted or restricted report of sexual assault are eligible to use the SVC program. SVC is also open to minor-aged victims, Womack said.
On January 1 this year, the Army extended SVC benefits to Department of the Army civilians. The new Army directive expanded both SVC and the Army’s sweeping Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, to include coverage of civilian employees for a one-year trial period ending January 2018.
Non-DOD cardholders and others not entitled to Army legal assistance, such as local nationals, may receive legal support through the Victim Witness Liaison program.
How to connect with an SVC here in Bavaria
To receive legal support through an SVC, victims must first make an unrestricted or restricted report. Victims can file an unrestricted report — and launch an immediate official investigation — through their unit or garrison victim advocate, sexual assault response coordinator, chain of command or law enforcement. Victims can make a restricted report through the unit or garrison victim advocate, SARC or health care provider.
After the initial report, victims are referred to an SVC, among other key supportive personnel. The SVC will then provide counseling and guidance based on the individual’s situation and objectives and advocate zealously on behalf of the victim in all legal-related matters.