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600 seek help of new victims counselors

Jan. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Air Force attorneys assigned to allegedvictims of sexual assault represented nearly 600 airmen within the first 11 months of the program’s January 2013 launch, the service reported.

The Air Force was the first of the services to provide lawyers — known as special victims counselors — to service members who report sexual assault. The Air Force, which hopes to prosecute more perpetrators through the program, last summer made the counselors’ jobs full-time, said Col. Dawn Hankins, who oversees the program.

Two dozen attorneys make up the SVC program and report to an independent chain of command. The lawyers are assigned to 22 locations around the world.

The Air Force could add more special victims counselors if the demand grows, Hankins said.

As of early December, special victims counselors had represented clients in 96 Article 32 hearings, which are similar to preliminary or grand jury hearings, and 97 courts-martial, the Air Force said.

Air Force leaders hoped that by providing attorneys to sexual assault victims, more would agree to see their cases through to court-martial. About a third of victims generally back out after agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of their alleged attackers.

“We still see some victims who don’t want to participate,” Hankins said. “Those will continue no matter what. There are a lot of reasons why. ... Preservation of privacy is always a concern. Even having a lawyer is not going to alleviate those concerns.”

So far, Hankins said, the program has not led to more victim participation. “I do think we’re allowing our clients to make more informed decisions,” she said.

The Air Force said it does not yet know the number of sexual assault prosecutions for 2013 or whether it was an increase from the year before.

Airmen who make a restricted report — giving them access to support services but stopping short of initiating an investigation — are more likely to make an unrestricted report after meeting with a special victims counselor, Hankins said.

“That’s a pretty good indicator that being able to talk to an attorney and understand the process gives them a little more confidence,” she said. “It’s the one thing that has really made a huge difference for [victims] in being able to get through the process.”

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