ISVAs: Raising the standards of support for victims of sexual violence

Independent Sexual Violence Advisers, or ISVAs as they are often known, play a hugely important role in supporting victims of rape and sexual violence. They are victim-focused advocates, that work with people who have experienced sexual violence to access the services they need.

The role of the ISVA was originally championed by the Home Office in 2006, after they saw the success of a few inspirational people supporting victims to access the support they needed following a sexual assault. Although these people were not then called ISVAs and were operating under a different name, they were in fact the pioneers of the ISVA role. The role of the Independent Domestic Violence Adviser (IDVA) had also been very successfully received and the Home Office thought it a good idea to adapt this role to meet the needs of victims of sexual violence. Over the following few years, the Home Office has provided funding to specialist sexual violence organisations and Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) to increase the ISVA workforce across England and Wales.

The role of the ISVA has been considered to be a great success and ISVA roles have been created in a range of organisations. In 2010, when Baroness Stern did her independent review on How Rape Complaints are Handled, she ran a series of Focus Groups and visited organisations throughout the country, and found from every organisation, unanimous praise for the work done by ISVAs.

ISVAs support victims through the process, whether or not the case goes to trial (and indeed their support is particularly welcomed in dealing with the reactions when it is decided that the case is not going to trial), and afterwards. They do an impressive,  important and very difficult job. The value of their support should not be underestimated.

LimeCulture would like to see every victim, whether they are male, female, child or adult have access to an ISVA following a sexual assault. They should also have access to an ISVA whether or not they choose to report their abuse. In some parts of the country this is already a reality, but sadly, in most areas it is not. There is not enough ISVAs and it is not always clear how a victim can access the support of an ISVA. In fact, it is unknown exactly how many ISVAs there are through the country as there is not a directory or even a comprehensive list of who they are and where they work. The Home Office has a list of the organisations they have provided with funding for ISVAs, but there are also ISVAs that have not been funded by the Home Office that are working with victims and, therefore do not appear on any such list.

There is not an overarching professional body that oversees ISVAs or regulates their work. There is no single organisation that an ISVA can turn to with professional questions or for support. There are a number of accredited training courses for ISVAs (limeCulture provides one of them), which is different to IDVAs who are all trained by a single organisation called CAADA. A single training provider means that you can be sure that all professionals that have undertaken that training will have be taught to the same standard. Unfortunately, the variety of ISVA training means that standards may well be different for the ‘trained’ ISVAs. Furthermore, ISVA training is not mandatory and there has been no coordination to identify which ISVAs have not undergone training.

LimeCulture has been a huge supporter of the ISVA role and will continue to be so into the future. However, we have been very concerned about the isolation that many ISVAs have told us they feel. We know that there are ISVAs sitting out there, doing very difficult jobs with the most vulnerable people, without professional or peer support and without any training. We have also been concerned about the differences in the way the ISVA role has been developed and delivered by different services. Unfortunately, in some services, we believe the interpretation of the ISVA role has lead to dangerous and unsafe practice.

The recognition of the ISVA workforce is also varied- some ISVAs say their role is completely understood and supported by other professionals (such as police, lawyers, courts etc) while in other areas, the ISVAs have a daily battle with other agencies who don’t understand who they are or what they are trying to do- which often leads the ISVA to being blocked or left out of discussions concerning their clients. The profile of ISVAs needs to be raised so that this doesn’t happen in any part of the country.

That said, we don’t think any of the problems with the ISVA role are insurmountable and with a little bit of clever thinking and coordination, we think the ISVA workforce could be a strong, confidence and competent workforce that is recognised and valued by all agencies and professionals just as much as they are valued by their clients.

Alarmingly, despite all of the support for ISVAs, their future is uncertain. In 2010, Baroness Stern said that as ‘an example of a reform to a system that is effective, cost-effective and affordable, the establishment of ISVAs is hard to beat. They help the victim to make sense of the system. They help the police by supporting a victim throughout the investigation. They help the prosecution by supporting the victim through the psychologically gruelling process of preparing to give evidence. They provide a link between the criminal case that is under way and the range of social agencies whose help may be needed. Victims find that an ISVA makes an enormous difference to the way they feel about what is happening to them. Yet ISVAs are not securely funded‘.

This is still the case today- if not worse-  for ISVAs whose posts are almost always short fixed-term contracts with unsustainable or unsecured funding.  All agencies and organisations are operating in times of financial constraint, but this is an area of funding which, above all other forms of support, should not be withdrawn to the detriment of victims reporting rape and accessing the support they need.

The changes to public services such as the NHS, Local Authorities and police will undoubtedly have an impact on ISVAs whose posts may have been funded or part funded by statutory agencies. The ISVA role needs to be safeguarded and funding continued in order to make sure that victims of sexual violence are still able to access the support regardless of the changes to public services taking place.

So how do we safeguard the role of the ISVA? LimeCulture believe the first step in this is to raise the standards of the ISVA role to ensure that high-quality, effective support is available from professional ISVAs. If ISVAs (and ISVA services) can show their impact, the positive outcomes their services have on victims and that they deliver these incredible services with great value for money, funders are much more likely to continue to fund them into the future. If we raise the standards, it becomes much harder for funders and commissioners to argue the case for funding cuts.

So how do you raise the standards? Well, LimeCulture think the best way to start is to let the ISVAs learn from each other. There is some examples of great practice going on out there and there are some brilliant ISVAs. There are also some ISVAs who have worked really hard to make things in their areas better for victims and they have considerable learning that they could share. LimeCulture think ISVAs should be brought together so that they can talk to each other and learn what works and what doesn’t work.

In April, LimeCulture and Kings College London are jointly hosting a national event for ISVAs. We hope this will be the start of something fantastic for ISVAs. Our aim is to bring as many ISVAs together as possible so that they can meet each other and learn from each other. We want all the ISVAs, regardless of who funds them or who employs them, to be a united workforce and the only way we think this can happen is if they are brought together to network and update their knowledge.

Knowledge and Network: An Event for ISVAs is being held on Thursday 25 April 2013 on the Strand in London. A fantastic range of speakers have been secured including Baroness Stern, Carlene Furmin, Dr Sam Warner. It promises to be a great day.

To book a place, please email info@limeculture.co.uk

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