Sexual assault survivors have strong allies in special victims’ counsel office

The members of Joint Special Victims’ Counsel program would like individuals to know that in the aftershock of a sexual assault, victims have a support team they can rely on.

Embedded within the installation’s legal assistance office, SVC attorneys have received special training in order to represent victims of sex-related offenses listed in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, explained Capt. William Shim, a full-time SVC for the Military District of Washington.

“We are licensed attorneys who advocate for the expressed interests and rights of victims of assaults covered under Article 120, 120(b), 120©, and 130 of the UCMJ,” he added. “But if a victim has questions, they can always reach out to us or talk to the sexual harassment assault response prevention community for advice; they don’t have to do legal research before seeking help.”

“Our job is to advocate for the interests of the victim,” explained Capt. Natalie McKiernan, a part-time SVC for MDW. “We give victims a voice, we guide them through investigations and if it goes to trial, we guide them through the court-martial. We try to empower victims by helping them understand the military justice system process and we let them know their legal rights and help them protect those rights.”

The most important feature of the program is the confidentiality offered by the SVC, Shim said. They offer the same attorney-client privileges key to all legal work, serving as advisors and counselors.

“Our duty is to the victim,” said Shim. “We don’t represent the government or the defense; we are the victim’s attorney and our communication is protected by attorney-client privilege. Since the victim is our client, we only advocate for their express interests.”

McKiernan explained that SVCs are often involved from the start of a victim seeking assistance, whether through the SHARP program or walking into the legal office.

“We are accompanying them to Criminal Investigation Division interviews; we’re talking them through what the process is, so they know what’s ahead,” she said. “If a case does go to court-martial, then we are with the victim at the hearings, at all trial proceedings. We go to interviews and meetings with them, so they are not alone in this process that can be pretty complicated if you’re not legally trained.”

SVC services are available to active duty Soldiers, Family members, Department of the Army civilians, along with Army Reserve and National Guard members who meet qualifying factors. While the full services of the program are available to those who file restricted or unrestricted assault reports, victims can always seek advice with SVC said Shim. Each military service has its own SVC program.

“If a victim is contemplating filing a report or has questions about the process, they can meet with an SVC and get legal advice,” he explained.

For dependent spouses, reporting an assault by their Soldier can be a difficult choice, when Family disruption and loss of income concerns are involved. Shim and McKiernan stressed that victims should never be afraid to reach out to the SVC program.

“This a serious and tough question spouses have to face,” said Shim. “Each case is different and fact dependent. But for us it is the client’s decision to file a report and determine what they want out of this process. We try to present all options so clients or victims can decide what’s best for them with total confidentiality.”

Shim said the SVC team has a very close relationship with various installations’ SHARP programs to take care of all victims, with an emphasis on always preserving confidentiality.

Felicia Brice, lead sexual assault response coordinator for Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and the Pentagon, noted that the SVC is a very important part of the SHARP program because they are the subject matter experts on the legal side of assault cases.

“My role as the SARC is to be the subject matter expert on sexual assault for the (base) commander, Col. Kimberly Peeples, to advise her on all matters regarding sexual harassment and assault and ensure the SHARP program works smoothly,” Brice explained. “The SARC is the only one who will know about all reported cases of sexual assault or harassment on the installation when a victim has filed a restricted or unrestricted report.

“We work for the JBM-HH command team, but this a victim centered program. We make sure the command follows the policies and procedures around the SHARP program and the right processes are taking place to ensure we are handling a victim’s case appropriately. And we always make victims aware of SVC services.”

“Though, in most cases our representation ends after trial, which marks the end of the legal process, follow-up assistance is offered by the SHARP community,” Shim said. “They stay on for as long as the victim wants care. The SARC or victim advocates provide ongoing support for as long as needed.”

McKiernan said that to receive full legal assistance from an SVC, victims should make a restricted or unrestricted report. Victims can file an unrestricted report through their unit or garrison victim advocate, SARC, chain of command or law enforcement. Victims can make a restricted report through a VA, SARC or health care provider. After reporting, victims are referred to an SVC. Though office visits are not possible during the COVID-19 crisis, victims looking for advice can call SVC at (703) 696-0771 or (703) 347-4108 for confidential counseling but are also encouraged to call the SHARP Safe Helpline.

“The most important thing community members should know is to speak up whether it is sexual harassment or an assault by contacting SHARP or the VA hotline because inappropriate behavior breeds in silence,” stressed Brice.

Victims are encouraged to reach out to JBM-HH SHARP Office at (703) 696-6497, the JBM-HH/Pentagon SHARP 24/7 Helpline at (202) 498-4009 or the Department of Defense (DOD) 24/7 Safe Helpline at (877) 995-5247 before speaking with any else, for confidential advice.

Despite the current COVID-19 contact restrictions, the SHARP program has established procedures for responding to calls safely and within all guidelines, explained Brice.