Reporting a sexual assault online is a good first step, adviser says
More work is needed to support victims of sexual assault and protect them from further trauma through the justice system
Community members now have the ability to report a sexual assault online.
Sarah P, sexual assault and domestic violence counselor with Women in Crisis Sault Ste. Marie, said the ruling was a “fantastic” first step toward justice for victims of sexual assault, but the system still has a long way to go.
Over a six-year period between 2009 and 2014, sexual assault cases did not progress and were dropped at various levels of the criminal justice system.
“An accused was identified in three out of five (59%) sexual assault incidents reported by police; less than half (43%) of sexual assault incidents resulted in a charge; of these, half (49%) were prosecuted in court; of which just over half (55%) resulted in a conviction; of which just over half (56%) were sentenced to imprisonment says a Statistics Canada report.
Sarah isn’t surprised by these stats and says it goes even further than that. Many victims of sexual assault choose not to report their abuse to the police, said the counselor who does not want her full name used for security reasons.
The Canadian Department of Justice reports that less than half of sexual assault cases in adult criminal court result in a guilty verdict and that the majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
These reports indicate that 70% of abused men do not show up and 59% of children or women who were abused in childhood do not show up.
“The most common reasons given for not reporting child sexual abuse and/or adult sexual abuse were: participants thought they would not be believed, they felt ashamed or embarrassed, they didn’t know that they could report the abuse and they had no family support,” the report said.
Sarah said that people who report abuse or sexual assault to her often decide not to press charges, but that Women in Crisis’s care and support does not depend on them filing a complaint with the police against their attacker.
She also said that due to the low conviction rate of cases that come to court, it is important for victims to make their healing process independent of the outcome of their case.
Sarah says the reasons for the low rates of disclosure and conviction are complex and varied.
“There needs to be systemic changes to our justice system in general,” she said. “There are a lot of things that need to happen from the ground up.”
“We are thrilled to see this new initiative rolling out and really applaud the Sault Ste. Marie police for meeting the women where they are,” she said. “It relieves the pressure of trying to remember details in a high pressure situation. It gives women a choice and for many that’s huge.”
A victim who is in immediate or possible danger should never take the time to report a sexual assault online, but should instead call 911. But, if the victim is safe, they can log into the Sault Ste. Mary font website and click on the link to start filing a report.
Overall, Sarah said the systemic changes needed should involve better education of lawyers, judges and police about the effects of trauma and what someone who has been traumatized might look like when recounting the events. that traumatized her, educating victims to better understand how the system works, and more advocacy and support for victims of sexual assault.
“It’s important to tackle the justice system,” she said. “The legal system needs to change. Once a woman reports, she often finds her life has been torn apart.”
Many victims make progress in recovering from the trauma of their attacks, but that work is undone when they have to speak up and testify years later.
“People watch these crime dramas and they think it’s all over in days or something,” Sarah said. “They couldn’t be further from the truth.”
What really happens is that victims have to speak up, often in front of their abuser, tell the story of their experience, and then have that story and their very lives torn apart by defense attorneys.
This means that victims maintain a constant state of heightened state of consciousness as they try to keep their memories straight and fresh for court dates that are set and delayed multiple times over several years.
One problem is that trauma affects how people remember events surrounding that trauma.
Confronting the person who traumatized them and trying to remember the details of the attack as every piece of information is questioned and their attacker watches is a bit like a sheep being thrown to the wolves, Sarah explained.
Victims find themselves triggered by the proceedings sometimes to the point of experiencing PTSD. Essentially, the legal process revictimizes them.
“It’s not right,” she said. “They relive the most horrific experiences of their lives. They go through it every day and relive it over and over again.”
She said the first step is to make people aware of what is really going on in the justice system, showing them that the dramas they watch on TV are not like real courtrooms.
This can be done through the media, activist-led education campaigns and the school system.
Another step would be training lawyers in training at law school.
“Ideally, this training would be mandatory and part of a law school curriculum,” she said. “It would also be updated regularly throughout the career of a lawyer and a judge. They just couldn’t live without it.”
This training would teach future lawyers to understand how trauma can affect the memory, testimony and mental state of witnesses and victims. This would teach them to broaden their ideas of how a victim might react during questioning or cross-examination and help them to understand that these reactions can be very varied and are not necessarily proof or refutation of the truthfulness of that person’s statements.
Another obstacle to justice for victims of sexual assault is the lack of support and assistance available to victims and witnesses.
Aid and assistance is available for them, but many victims and witnesses do not know about them or do not have access to them.
They could testify and be cross-examined from another room in the courthouse via closed-circuit television or have a screen installed in front of the witness box blocking the view of the courtroom.
But these aids are generally not available and the Crown must justify their use if they are requested. Judges must weigh the claim against the rights of the accused to face his accuser.
Sometimes lawyers for the accused argue that these aids interfere with their ability to effectively cross-examine witnesses or that trying to accommodate witnesses could unduly delay the process.
Not all courtrooms in Sault Ste. Marie is equipped with CCTV equipment or is large enough to accommodate a screen in front of the witness box. This means that the trial will have to wait until a courtroom with the necessary facilities is available.
Sarah says that in her experience, judges seem to prefer victims to testify in court and in person, unless they absolutely need one of these aids.
She says judges need to have an understanding of domestic violence, the effects of trauma and how a victim who has been traumatized might act, react or testify.
This would make it more likely that they would allow a victim access to help that would help them tell their story more clearly and in more detail. That their voices would be heard.
A great program available to support witnesses and victims of any crime in Ontario is the Victim/Witness Assistance Program (VWAP).
The Ontario Victim/Witness Assistance Program was established to provide support and information to victims and witnesses of crime in the province and part of what they do is advise victims and witnesses on what they can expect throughout along the process.
It also informs victims and witnesses of the special aids available to them to help them testify in court and to help them advocate for access to such aids.
He plays a vital role in educating victims about their rights, responsibilities and what they can expect to experience on the stand when they testify or are cross-examined. Service workers do not advise victims on what to say or the details of their case, but they explain to people the basics of the process and what can happen at each stage of the process.
Sarah said the system still has a long way to go to support victims of sexual assault, but Sault Ste. The willingness of Marie Police to implement online reporting shows a desire to do what it takes to more consistently provide justice and protection to these victims without re-traumatizing them.
This gives him hope that the results will improve in the future and that victims will be able to recover from trauma faster and more effectively.
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