Advice & support for victims of sexual violence: Could it be better?

On Saturday 13 April, the Guardian published an article by Amelia Gentleman called ‘Prosecuting sexual assault: Raped all over again’. The article centres on the experiences of  victims of sexual violence in the court room during a rape case and particularly,  how deeply unpleasant it can be for them. The article was prompted by the death of Frances Andrade in 2012, whose experience in the witness box left her feeling violated and like she’d been raped all over again. Sadly, Frances Andrade killed herself within days of the court case. The article asks whether it is time that changes were made for prosecuting rape cases.

The conviction rate in rape cases is an issue that is often hotly debated and has prompted governments (of all colours) to say they want to do more to help victims come forward and peruse their cases through the criminal justice system. Although these figures are not always properly reported or understood- it is true that the numbers of rape cases that make it into a court room is much lower than the number of rapes that actually occur and the number of rapes that end up in a conviction is significantly lower still. There are many reasons why the conviction rate is low, but LimeCulture firmly believe that if victims are able to access effective support and advice, then there is a chance that we might be able to increase that conviction rate.

The Home Office currently fund 87 Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs), who are victim-focused advocates that work with people who have experienced sexual violence to access the services they need. Although most ISVAs will also provide advice and support to the victims who choose not to go to court, a hugely important aspect of the ISVA role  is to support the victim through the criminal justice system. Certainly, the thinking behind the Home Office’s push to increase the number of ISVAs was based on the notion that if victims are effectively supported, then our attrition rates should fall and victims will peruse justice for their abuse, hopefully ending in a better conviction rate.

So, if this thinking is right, then it is absolutely essential that the support given to victims is of the highest standard. LimeCulture is a massive advocate for ISVAs, who we believe do a hugely important role in supporting victims. LimeCulture have now trained 3 cohorts of ISVAs since September 2011 (our 4th cohort of ISVAS begin their training in June) and we believe that all of these ISVAs are providing excellent services to the clients they support. Sadly, we know that not all victims can access ISVA support as there are not enough of them across the country. Even more worrying is that where victims are lucky enough to have access to an ISVA, the level of support available to them will vary significantly depending on where they happen to be in the country.  The reasons for this huge variation are discussed in our earlier blog ‘ISVAs: Raining the standards for victims of sexual violence’.

There are very few articles about ISVAs and the incredible work that they do- so many people (including professionals working in the field of sexual violence) do not really know or understand what ISVAs do or how to access their support. So when Amelia Gentleman’s article makes a reference to an ISVA, we were really pleased. Its great to see the work of an ISVA included in articles…this will help raise their profile. Unfortunately, our pleasure soon turned to disappointment when we realised that the client in the article had been given inaccurate advice by her ISVA.

Giving clients inaccurate information can have devastating consequences. The victim in the guardian article was told not to have counselling until after her trial. This meant that she may not have access to all the support that she needed. Sadly, we know that this advice is commonly given by professionals to victims whose cases are being prosecuted and are awaiting trial. This advice is incorrect. Indeed a victim can access counselling before a trial but the therapist must follow the pre-trial therapy guidelines.

These guidelines are ‘intended to be helpful for all practitioners, especially those in the criminal justice system, NHS, social services departments and voluntary organisations‘. So it is alarming that so many professionals providing support to victims seem not to understand these guidelines and in some cases don’t even know that they exist.

After reading the guardian article, we tweeted that more needs to be done to ensure that victims of sexual violence are receiving the right advice and support from professionals to help them through the criminal justice system. We received load of responses and although every reply tweet and direct message agreed with that sentiment, we were alarmed at just how many people tweeted that victims of sexual violence should not be made to choose between counselling AND pursuing justice. We were alarmed that many people seemed to be of the belief that a victim of sexually violence could could not do both. More alarming is that these tweets came from professionals- the very people who are providing advice and support to victims.

If we are to try to increase the numbers of cases that go to court and ultimately improve the conviction rate, then we really do need to properly support the victims. Surely the starting point to making this a reality is to make sure that the advice they are given is accurate? Completely accurate. Only then can a victim make an informed decision about whether they or not they want to report their abuse and go through the court process.

LimeCulture is very concerned about the lack of knowledge in the sexual violence sector about the court process and the justice system. We can’t say for sure whether the outcome would have been different for the woman in the article had she been given proper advice about what support she could have accessed but we can be absolutely sure she deserved to be given the highest standard of support, and that includes being given accurate information.

LimeCulture believes that more needs to be done to raise the standards of the support provided to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. More needs to be done to increase the knowledge of the people who provide the support and advice. We believe these services need to be quality assured to ensure they are fit for purpose and make sure that the people who represent  ‘the victim’s voice’ actually know what they are talking about.

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