Special Victim Liaisons provide care, resources for assault victims

Being a compassionate ally and link to critical resources are goals of Special Victim Liaisons who assist victims of sexual assault and other crimes as part of the Army’s new Office of Special Trial Counsel.

Unlike the other services, the Army OSTC brings an expertise to the fold that is unique – Special Victim Liaisons.

Working closely with prosecutors at OSTC's 28 field offices, SVLs are responsible for establishing and maintaining open lines of communication with victims, providing access to resources and helping them navigate the military justice system.

“Our job is to ensure that victims are informed, involved and engaged throughout the entire court martial process,” said Jennifer Smith, OSTC’s SVL program manager.

SVLs support all victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and crimes against children.

Working with victims begins soon after a crime is reported. Typically, military law enforcement notifies the SVL there is a new case and provides the victim’s contact information and a summary of the police report. SVLs inform victims of their rights and provide an overview of the support and various resources they can provide.

Resources for military victims are plentiful Smith said. Service members are typically referred to the Army Family Advocacy Program, which links victims to services such as medical and mental health care and financial counseling.

Finding services for civilian victims can be challenging however, so SVLs work hard to forge relationships with local shelters and churches, as well as providers for counseling and legal and financial assistance.

“If they need clothes, we can get clothes. If they have a child who needs counseling, we have contacts with child advocacy centers,” she said. “We try to find as much as we can to be helpful because it’s so important.”

Not just available to civilians, these off-post resources can help save military members from the potential discomfort or embarrassment of running into a subordinate, peer or superior while seeking assistance.

Attending a court-martial can also be an overwhelming experience, so SVLs remain side-by-side with the victim through the entire trial providing comfort and reassurance.

If the crime is committed off base and civilian authorities decide to prosecute, SVLs usually refer clients to victim assistance officers with the Department of Justice or the local District Attorney’s office. However, some victims prefer the SVLs assistance, so they routinely accompany clients in civilian courts.

Who are SVLs?

OSTC’s SVLs are a diverse group.

“We are a mixed bunch – male, female, all different races,” Smith said. “Some have zero military experience, some do. Most generally have done social work, have paralegal experience or both. Some may have worked at shelters or were previously victim advocates.”

Smith brings a variety of experience from her time in the military as well as the civilian sector to the field. She served in the Air Force as a firefighter and a paralegal, and after her military career she worked for a judge and together they started the North Texas Regional Veterans Treatment Court, a specialty program for veterans who suffer from combat-related PTSD, are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and face criminal prosecution.

“I think my calling has always been to help people, and I was doing that as a firefighter,” Smith said. “We run in, help people, save them and we’re basically done. When I couldn’t do that anymore, I found my path in another way.”

Josh Cantrell has been an SVL in the OSTC field office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., for five months. He’s a retired Army paralegal with 21 years of service.

While he had a variety of assignments and deployments during his career, Cantrell said his job as a Special Victim Paralegal NCO program manager was particularly beneficial for his current position.

“That experience allows me to approach my role as an SVL with a clear understanding of not only the military justice process, but some of the more intricate and sometimes challenging parts of our role to include data collection, Congressional oversight and media attention.”

Cantrell said the most rewarding part of his job is being the person who sets the tone for open communication with victims.

“I can’t guarantee a result, but I can guarantee that their experience with our office and I will be respectful, informative and professional at every step.”

While Cantrell is new to the job, Anne Carpenter has served eight years as an SVL. She works in OSTC’s field office at Fort Drum, N.Y.

During her career, Carpenter has worked on more than 1,600 special victim cases which includes approximately 155 court-martials.

She’s met many incredible people over the years and helping them through these challenging circumstances keeps her spirits up in this line of work.

“The most rewarding aspect of being an SVL is being able to guide a victim through an overwhelming and unfamiliar process, and to be that pillar of support through their most vulnerable times,” Carpenter said.

What advice would she give someone interested in becoming an SVL? Be flexible and a team player.

“We work in an ever-changing environment, and you must be able to ‘adjust fire’ when needed,” she explained.

“And whether you’re traveling across the country to meet with a victim, or spending countless hours preparing a case for trial, be comfortable working with your team and know that you can lean on one-another for support.”

Smith emphasized that one of the most valuable attributes of an SVL is they truly care about people.

“SVLs care significantly about the victim, their rights, the process and finding resources we connect them to if they need it. Making sure that whatever a best outcome looks like for the victim, that’s what we want to happen.”

The military services’ Offices of Special Trial Counsel became fully operational on Dec. 28, 2023, marking the most significant transformation of the military justice system since the establishment of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950. The result is the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes moved from the accused’s commander to OSTC’s independent prosecutors.

By: Michelle McCaskill

Army Office of Special Trail Counsel