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Reporting sexual assault online good first step, counsellor says

More work needed to support victims of sexual assault and protect them from re-traumatization by the court system

Community members now have the option of reporting sexual assault online.

Sarah P, a sexual assault and domestic violence counsellor with Women in Crisis Sault Ste. Marie, said the move was a "fantastic" first step toward justice for sexual assault victims, but the system has a long way to go.

Over a six‑year period between 2009 and 2014, sexual assault cases failed to move forward and were dropped at various levels of the criminal justice system. 

"An accused was identified in three in five (59 per cent) sexual assault incidents reported by police; less than half (43 per cent) of sexual assault incidents resulted in a charge being laid; of these, half (49 per cent) proceeded to court; of which just over half (55 per cent) led to a conviction; of which just over half (56 per cent) were sentenced to custody," says a report from Statistics Canada.

Sarah isn't surprised by these statistics and says it goes even deeper than that. A lot of victims of sexual assault choose not to report their abuse to police, said the counsellor who does not want her full name used for security reasons.

The Canadian Department of Justice reports that fewer 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 police.

Those reports indicate that 70 per cent of men assaulted do not report and 59 per cent of children or women who were assaulted as children did not report.

"The most frequently reported reasons for not reporting child sexual abuse and/or adult sexual abuse were: the participants thought that they would not be believed, they felt ashamed or embarrassed, they did not know they could report the abuse, and they had no family support," says the report.

Sarah said people who report sexual abuse or assault to her will often decide not to lay charges, but their care and support from Women in Crisis is not dependent on whether they file a complaint with police against their assailant.

She also said, because of the low conviction rates of cases that do go to court, it's important for victims to make their healing process independent of the outcome of their case.

Sarah says the reasons behind low reporting and conviction rates are complex and varied. 

"There needs to be some systemic changes to our judicial system in general," she said. "There's a lot that has to happen from the ground up." 

"We're super excited to see this new initiative being rolled out and we really commend the Sault Ste. Marie Police for meeting women where they are at," she said. "It relieves the pressure of trying to recall 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 sexual assault online but should, instead, call 911. But, if the victim is safe, they can log in to the Sault Ste. Marie Police website and click the link to begin filing a report.

Overall, Sarah said the systemic changes needed should involve better education for lawyers, judges and police officers about the effects of trauma and what an individual who has been traumatized might look and sound like as they recount the events that traumatized them, education for victims to understand how the system works, as well as more advocacy and better support for victims of sexual assault. 

"It's important to address the court system," she said. "The legal system has to change. Once a woman reports she often finds that her life has been ripped apart."

Many victims make some progress in recovering from the trauma of their attacks only to have that work undone when they have to take the stand and testify a few years later.

"People watch these crime dramas and they think it all wraps up in a few days or something," Sarah said. "They couldn't be further from the truth."

What actually happens is that victims must take the stand, often facing their abuser, tell the story of their experience and then have that story and their very lives ripped apart by defence lawyers.

It means victims maintain a constant state of heightened state of awareness as they try to keep their memories straight and fresh for court dates that are set and delayed many times over the span of several years.

One problem is that trauma affects the way people remember events surrounding that trauma.

Confronting the person who traumatized them and trying to recall details about the attack while every bit of information is questioned and their abuser looks on is much like a sheep being thrown to the wolves, Sarah explained.

Victims find themselves triggered by the proceedings sometimes to the point of experiencing PTSD. In essence, the court process re-victimizes them.

"This is not okay," she said. "They are reliving the most horrific experiences of their lives. They live this every day and relive it over and over again."

She said the first step is to make people aware of what actually happens in the court system, showing them the dramas they watch on television are not like real courtrooms.

This can happen through the media, education campaigns by advocates and through the school system. 

Another step would be the education of lawyers in training in law school.

"Ideally this training would be mandatory and would be part of a curriculum in law school," she said. "It would also be updated regularly throughout a lawyer and judge's career. They wouldn't be able to just take a pass on it."

This training would teach would-be lawyers to understand how trauma can affect the memory, testimony and mental states of witnesses and victims. It would teach them to broaden their ideas of how a victim might react under examination or cross-examination and help them understand that those reactions could be quite varied and aren't necessarily proof or disproof of the veracity of that person's statements.

Another barrier to justice for victims of sexual assault is a lack of support and assistance available for victims and witnesses.

There are aids and assistance available for them but many victims and witnesses don't know about them or can't get access to them.

They could testify and be cross-examined from another room in the courthouse via closed-circuit television or have a screen set up across the front of the witness stand blocking the view of the courtroom.

But these aids are not generally available and the Crown has to argue for their use if they are requested. Judges must weigh the request against the rights of the accused to face their accuser.

Sometimes lawyers for the accused will argue that these aids either impair their ability to cross-examine witnesses effectively or that trying to make accommodations for witnesses might delay the process unduly.

Not every courtroom in Sault Ste. Marie is equipped with closed-circuit television equipment or is large enough to accommodate a screen in front of the witness stand. This means the trial will have to wait until a courtroom with the facilities needed becomes available.

Sarah says that, in her experience, judges seem to prefer that victims testify in court and face to face 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 they would allow a victim access to an aid that would help them tell their stories more clearly and in more detail. That their voices would be heard.

One excellent program available to support witnesses and victims of any crimes committed in Ontario is the Victim Witness Assistance Program (VWAP)

The Ontario Victim/Witness Assistance Program has been set up to provide support and information for victims and witnesses of crime in the province and part of what they do is counsel victims and witnesses about what they can expect when throughout the process. 

It also informs victims and witnesses of the special aids that are available to them to assist them to testify in court and help advocate for access to those aids.

It plays a vital role in educating victims about their rights, responsibilities and what they can expect to experience on the stand when testifying or being cross-examined. Service workers don't advise victims about what to say or address specifics of their cases but they do tell people the basics about the process and what can happen at each step along the way.

Sarah said the system has a long way to go to support victims of sexual assault but Sault Ste. Marie Police's willingness to implement online reporting shows a desire to do what it takes to more consistently secure justice and protection for those victims without re-traumatizing them. 

It gives her hope that outcomes will improve in the future and that victims will be able to recover from trauma faster and more effectively.

Carol Martin

About the Author: Carol Martin

Carol has over 18-years experience in journalism, was raised in Sault Ste. Marie, and has also lived and worked in Constance Lake First Nation, Sudbury, and Kingston before returning to her hometown to join the SooToday team in 2004.
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