DECEMBER 12, 2016, HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) – Sexual assault is something that can affect an individual for the rest of their life. The victims of sexual assault often have residual emotional and psychological damage.
These effects are hard to deal with alone, but with the right help, victims can take a big step toward recovery.
In 2013, the Air Force started a test program called the Special Victims Counsel Program to assist sexual assault victims.
“The purpose of the SVC Program is to empower victims,” said Capt. Ekaterina Korulina, an appointed military attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual assault and sexual related crimes. “We also make sure they understand the process and that they are resilient enough to go through that process.”
The Air Force SVC test program was successful and is now being used all across the military.
“The Air Force started this program as a test program, and we are very proud of this,” Korulina said. “It had a positive feedback and was such a success that every branch of the military decided to have their own special victims’ counsel-type program.”
As an SVC, Korulina represents victims through the military justice process and provides a variety of other services.
“The benefit for victims to have a Special Victims’ Counsel is that they can have a completely confidential communication, which is protected by attorney-client privilege,” she said. “This means the SVC cannot disclose anything a victim says unless the victim gives permission to do so. That is a huge benefit because we can establish trust, and they can rely on me. Additionally, advising clients is a huge part of my job — making sure they understand every step in the process and their rights so they know their options and can make educated decisions.”
In a time of need, having a trusted individual there to assist is part of what makes the SVC program a success.
“I have to make sure they are physically, spiritually and emotionally ready and able,” she said. “We can go through the process without disclosing their most private information to anyone else. Additionally, I have protected communication with my clients – completely protected. It is confidential communication.”
One of the key factors to the success of the SVC program is that all SVC attorneys are geographically separated from the base where they are stationed.
“I don’t belong to the legal office, the area defense counsel or the wing commander on base,” Korulina said. “My boss, my senior SVC, is located at Travis Air Force Base in California. My supervisor for my Special Victims’ Counsel duties is the chief of the SVC Program who is located in Washington, D.C. No one in my clients’ chain of command or the chain of command of their assailants will influence my representation of my clients.”
This means that Korulina can represent victims without the worry that their, or anyone’s, chain of command can have any persuasion on the reporting process.
“The purpose of this was for us to be independent and provide support through independent representation,” she said. “Nobody can influence my decision making process, threaten me or adjust my performance report. I can’t be ordered to disclose my clients’ information.”
This allows Korulina to conduct her business with confidence and fully concentrate on taking care of her clients.
“I can really zealously, independently and openly advocate for my clients without being threatened or being afraid that something negative will happen to me or my military record,” Korulina said. “My job is to provide information to people so they can make decisions without feeling forced.”
Korulina doesn’t just provide information from behind her desk, she also attends the interviews and court proceedings with her clients.
“If we schedule an interview with law enforcement, I am physically there with my clients,” Korulina said. “I make sure their privacy rights are not violated or their personal information is not disclosed when it does not have to be disclosed.”
Korulina wants to make sure her clients are comfortable and confident so they can more accurately provide information to investigators and prosecutors. She can also step in when needed.
“If something is going too far, or I feel that it is inappropriate or irrelevant, I can advise my client about different choices and options on not providing that information,” she said. “I make sure they are comfortable in those situations as much as they can be because it’s always uncomfortable meeting with law enforcement or going through investigation.”
When a victim reports a sexual assault, a long chain of events follow. The process of investigating and prosecuting a sexual crime can take months.
“One of the main benefits of the SVC program is an attorney will be representing a victim through the process,” she said. “That process is very complicated and lengthy. It takes time to get a court-martial.”
In the past, a lot of victims would be dissuaded from reporting sexual crimes due to having limited information.
“Before the SVC program came into existence, what happened is that the victims didn’t know what their options or rights were,” Korulina said. “A lot of the time, they were forced to do certain things, and they had no idea they had an option.”
Often, victims who reported sexual crimes on their own found themselves feeling like they were, at times, the criminal, not the victim.
“A lot of the time when the victim would do an interview with law enforcement, they felt like they were the ones being interrogated,” she said. “They felt like they were the ones who committed the crime instead of being the one who is the victim or a witness providing statements.”
Unrestricted reports are where the SVC provides their biggest support for the victim.
“If they decide to do an unrestricted report, I will guide them through each and every step of the process,” Korulina said. “I will provide legal advice, making sure they understand the different options and the consequences so they can make an educated decision.”
No matter what kind of report the victim decides to use, Korulina is still willing and able to provide support, information and resources.
“I can meet with clients who decide to do restricted or unrestricted reports,” she said. “I am more limited to providing services when someone decides to do a restricted report because typically the legal process doesn’t start, and it doesn’t go through investigation. However, I can still provide some legal assistance if necessary.”
Once a client is represented by Korulina, all contact with the victim has to go through her.
“Nobody from law enforcement or prosecutors can contact my clients directly,” she said. “It limits the pressure on the victims.”
Korulina and the SVC program strive to assist victims throughout every step of their reporting and prosecuting process — keeping their client informed and confident from start to finish.
“I guide them through the meeting with the defense counsel and talk to the prosecutors,” she said. “I make sure that we know what the decision making process is and what decisions are being made.”
When the process reaches trial, Korulina will represent her clients so they do not have to go through trial. She can be their educated and trusted voice in the courtroom.
“If it goes further through the court martial, I can represent them,” Korulina said. “The victims have a lot of rights now, and the victims can have a voice through me.”
There are certain requirements that must be met in order to become an SVC. Victims are assured that they will be represented by an experienced attorney.
“You cannot be an SVC at your first assignment,” she said. “It is usually people who have been in the justice world for some time. I personally came from a different base, where I was working as chief of military justice. I prosecuted cases, and I know the investigation and prosecution process very well.”
This experience requirement makes it easier for the SVC to represent their client throughout the process.
“That helps me to ensure I can guide my clients through every little step in the process,” Korulina said. “I understand how decisions are being made all the way from law enforcement to the legal office.”
The SVC may sound similar to the existing Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, but there are some big differences between the two.
“The huge difference is that I am an attorney, so I can represent them through the legal process,” she said. “I have standing in the courtroom on certain matters. I can appear with them or for them and speak on the record in front of a judge. SAPR cannot do that, as they are not attorneys.”
Just because the SVC offers a different approach than the SAPR program or the victim advocates can, does not mean victims should avoid using them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“We typically get referrals from SAPR most often,” Korulina said. “We also get referrals from the victim advocates, family advocacy, first sergeants and commanders.”
These other programs are useful for assistance with and reporting sexual crimes that have happened in the past.
“I like when people have a chance to consult with SAPR,” she said. “Because they can explain to them the difference between the restricted or unrestricted reports as well as provide some resources that might be immediately necessary.”
However, it is recommended that any victims visit their SVC if a sexual crime was recently committed.
“If I have someone who just went through a trauma, I like to see them right away,” Korulina said. “I will make sure all of the emergency assistance is provided right away. If we need to go seek medical or mental health assistance, or if we need to preserve some evidence, I have all of the resources and contacts to make sure that it is taken care of.”
So far, the SVC program has been highly regarded by the clients they’ve served.
“We receive great feedback from our clients who go through this whole process,” she said. “They say it has just been so much better having a person next to them who can provide advice and explain what is going on.”
Korulina enjoys what she does as an SVC, and she is passionate about helping her clients.
“I volunteered for this job,” she said. “I asked my previous boss to recommend me for this position. It is something I have been interested in since I joined the Air Force. I think this program is stronger and stronger every year, and it is developing quickly and that’s great. It provides a lot of great services to victims.”
As an SVC, Korulina is able to help victims and enjoy the satisfaction that comes along with it.
“I enjoy this job,” she said. “I enjoy helping people. It gives me some satisfaction that at the end of the day I did something good for someone. It has been challenging in a way that it takes a lot of time, effort and dedication, but, at the same time, it is very rewarding because it brings so much back to you.”
By Senior Airman Aaron Montoya, 49th Wing Public Affairs