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New Air Force program provides legal assistance to sexual assault victims

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michael O'Brien is the Special Victims' Counsel
stationed at Offutt Air Force Base and is one of three SVCs who represents
the Patterson Air Force Base region. The Special Victims Council program
kicked off last November and consists of judge advocates and paralegals who
provide legal assistance to and represent victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michael O'Brien is the Special Victims' Counsel stationed at Offutt Air Force Base and is one of three SVCs who represents the Patterson Air Force Base region. The Special Victims Council program kicked off last November and consists of judge advocates and paralegals who provide legal assistance to and represent victims of sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- A new Air Force program is giving victims of sexual assault a voice, allowing them to combat their cases in new ways.

The Special Victims Council program kicked off last November with the training of 60 judge advocates to become part-time SVCs, and in May, the training of 24 JAGs to become full-time SVCs. The program consists of JAGs and paralegals that provide legal assistance to and represent victims of sexual assault.

"I think that there was a piece missing for the victims in that they were not really being represented," said Jennifer McCabe, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at Offutt Air Force Base. "The prosecutor represents the Air Force or the military and the prosecutor is working for their case to prosecute the defendant but the prosecutor is working for the Air Force."

Currently, these JAGs and paralegals are located at Air Force bases across the world, but unlike most base judge staff advocates or assistant judge staff advocates, SVCs do not report to their bases' installation commanders. SVCs are part of a direct reporting unit, reporting to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dawn Hankins, head of the SVC program. The reason for this is to avoid any potential undue influence from commanders during a sexual assault case.

"That maintains my independent professional legal advice for all my clients, whether or not I have clients who are at Offutt right now or not," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Michael O'Brien, a Special Victims' Counsel stationed at Offutt.

O'Brien, who worked for the 55th Wing Legal Office as an assistant staff judge advocate before volunteering and being selected by The Judge Advocate General, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, as a SVC, said he had worked sexual assault cases in the past as a prosecutor and wished he could have done more for the victim, something he knows he can do in his new position.

"Now that I have been through that process and I've had the frustration and I've seen what it's done, I hopefully can make sure that never happens again," O'Brien said.

Before the SVC program, victims were not provided a lawyer to represent them. Victims could ask the base legal office for advice, but according to McCabe, many victims were scared to approach the legal office because of other factors that might cause additional legal issues for them, such as underage drinking. The SARC was able to give the "what ifs," what they think might happen and what they've heard might happen, but since they are not lawyers, they were not able to give legal advice.

"We tend to lose victims kind of at that point of when it gets to legal, when they trying to find out what's going to happen next, how much more [they] will have to do," McCabe said. "It's a hard road. Even though we can be there to support them as advocates, we cannot give them that legal advice."

With the new program, victims of sexual assault who are Air Force Active Duty, Air Force Reservists on orders or were assaulted by an Air Force member, have the option of getting a SVC who works for them, can provide legal advice and representation, unlike a prosecutor, and who specializes in sexual assault cases.

"The big goal with our program is to really make sure that our clients get an understanding of the process and that they feel good about what's going on," O'Brien said. "We are not here to guarantee more convictions, we don't want that. We just want to make sure that the victims of sexual assault felt heard and are adequately represented throughout the process."

In addition to being an independent unit from the legal office and the rest of Offutt Air Force Base, O'Brien's office is now located in the Public Affairs and Heartland of America Band building, Building 88, near the Offutt Parade Grounds.

"We do a lot of things to maintain a professional and independent image, which is why I live here now," O'Brien said. "Certainly the legal office could have carved out an office space for me away from all the assistant judge staff advocates and the leadership there, but in order to maintain the appearances there, because appearances can be reality, too, especially in the minds of young Airman who are coming in for legal advice."

Even though the program is still in its early stages, McCabe and O'Brien have seen feedback that proves the program is working.

"This program is amazing and that is why I love being a part of it," O'Brien said. "There's the subject matter of what we do and there's also the aspect of how this is just a brand new way of doing business in the Air Force. I wanted to make sure that this program gets off to the right start the right way. I don't want us to have any big hiccups... No matter the result [of a court], the program is working at least having the intended results for our clients."