Responding to Sexual Violence in Medicine Hat – Part 1
It’s probably happened to someone you know. A friend, a coworker, a family member. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, often before the age of 18 (Badgley, 1984). Help and support is available, but many people don’t know what to expect when they reach out for that help. This series of articles will explore the Medicine Hat Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and how each agency plays a vital role in addressing and responding to this issue in our community.
Part 1 of this series will take a look at the role of law enforcement. Speaking with S/Sgt. Trevor Humphries of the Medicine Hat Police Service, Major Crimes Section we begin to discuss his perspective of serving individuals who have been affected by sexual assault.
Prior to working in the Major Crimes Section, S/Sgt. Humphries worked in the Family Crime Unit for 4 years. This Unit was responsible for sexual assault investigations of both adults and children. Through these cases he learned the importance of trauma-informed service delivery and ensuring victims are in control and given choices. “First and foremost is the survivor’s health and welfare physically,” states S/Sgt. Humphries. This could include a visit to the hospital if the victim chooses, and the option to conduct an interview right away or at a later date when they are more comfortable and some of the shock has worn off. “It takes a lot of courage for a person to walk through our doors and tell us they have been sexually assaulted,” says S/Sgt. Humphries. “Some survivors walk up to our door and turn back multiple times before coming in to talk to us. It’s important that we treat them with dignity, respect, and compassion. They are about to tell us about one of the worst things possible that could have ever happened to them.” With health and wellness being of top priority, victims are given the option to go to the hospital and have a rape kit done to collect any evidence. This is undoubtedly a very intrusive experience which cannot be rushed, although, there is a time limit for collecting such evidence. Showering and changing clothes can compromise the evidence so, if possible, these actions should not happen until after the medical exam.
“For the survivor,” adds S/Sgt. Humphries, “it’s not always about seeking justice by going through the evidence collection, giving a statement, and possibly going to court. Often it’s just about being heard, feeling supported, and being connected to resources like counselling.” Laying charges and getting a conviction are not always the survivor’s goal. Sitting down with an officer and hearing the court process explained and getting a better understanding of what is necessary to move forward can sometimes be reassuring in itself. By gaining knowledge about the process and what is required, survivors can find peace of mind and some closure. “Policing is changing,” says S/Sgt. Humphries. “We are learning more about the victim and trauma-informed interviewing.” With a focus on the wellbeing of the survivor rather than pushing to get information to move forward with pressing charges, there is a shift in our culture. Experienced officers are passing along their knowledge to new recruits in the hope that they can make the experience of disclosing sexual assault easier for survivors by offering a respectful and dignified response.
As part of the Medicine Hat Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), S/Sgt. Humphries believes that this is a vital way of sharing information amongst service providers. “When we meet,” he says, “this is our opportunity to learn what other agencies are seeing. Any trends or road blocks. This is a network of resources we can use to help our clients.” Not all survivors of sexual assault contact police. In fact, less than 10% are ever reported to law enforcement (Statistics Canada, 2013). By being a part of this team, police can gain a better perspective of how often this crime is occurring in our community. It also creates a network of helpers, making it easier for agencies to refer to other service providers through connections made at this table.
This team also identifies service needs in the community. Easily overwhelmed by everything that has happened to them and the next steps to take, a sexual assault survivor will soon be given the “third option” in Medicine Hat for the evidence collected (projected program start date in 2017). This SART collaborative project will allow the survivor to have the evidence collected and placed in storage without pressing charges right away. It will be their choice as to when or if they want to pursue legal action. This has been done in other communities and has proven to be very emotionally healing for the survivors, allowing them to take their time and process what has happened to them rather than feel rushed to make decisions while experiencing the initial shock and trauma.
Offering a sexual assault survivor support in a compassionate, respectable, and dignified way is vital to their healing. Allowing them to take their time when making an official statement and the soon-to-be “third option” of evidence collection are major steps policing is taking to make the experience easier for survivors. By working together and ensuring a collaborative response to sexual assault, we can all make our community a safer place.
Part 2 available here.