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27 May 2008

We need to do more for rape victims

Top cop John Yates on why he believes more help for victims of sexual violence is needed, how police

By John Yates

More must be done to support all victims of crime, but especially those victims of rape and serious sexual assault. The way in which any society protects its victims of crime provides a barometer reading of that society’s standards of humanity and decency. The physical and emotional trauma associated with victims of sex crimes demands the very highest standards of care and support. Across the board we have made improvements but more can and should be done.

Commonly, we expect victims of sex offences to report their allegation immediately to police as the first stage of the criminal justice process. However, alarmingly, current research tells us that as few as one in 10 victims come forward to report crimes in this category. The hesitation or reluctance to notify police has numerous known explanations, including the difficulties associated with reporting a partner or someone known to them and with whom they share emotional, financial and lifestyle ties.

There are also, of course, other reasons, not least the uncertainty around their immediate future and the belief that their often uncorroborated testimony may be questioned or worse, disbelieved.

Whilst police efforts to replicate at least part of the therapeutic elements of voluntary support continue apace, there remains a gap in service provision. In the final analysis, the principal task of the police is to investigate when an allegation of crime is received. Experience tells us that victims of crime provide the best and fullest accounts when they feel most supported and have the confidence that all their various needs will be addressed.

The police can fill some of this requirement but are not equipped, nor arguably should they be expected to be, to fill all of them. A perceived less than supportive response, fuelled in part through the Service’s difficult history in this arena, through to a straightforward distrust are just some of the dilemmas victims must face when deciding what to do.

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There is therefore a gap. This needs to be filled and sustained if victims of this type of crime are to feel valued in a society which for many years has regarded them as part of the criminal justice process or not at all.

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What is required is an additional medium for victims to visit where they can feel safe and in which empathy and understanding can be provided along with practical advice on possible ways forward. This facility has long been in the hands of tireless, often unpaid, volunteers who give up their time to ensure that many victims across the UK can at last find a safe haven in this their greatest hour of need.

Efforts to engage the voluntary sector with the statutory agencies are well advanced in some areas and the respective chair of the National Rape Crisis Organisation and the Survivor’s Trust are members of the ACPO Working Group on Rape which I chair.

At local level Forces are encouraged to replicate national arrangements by working with support groups as part of their overarching strategy on sex offending.

The two ‘umbrella’ groups representing hundreds of voluntary sector support agencies, National Rape Crisis and Survivor’s Trust continue to provide a quality service to victims assisting them to move forward in their lives. This is not achieved though without a great deal of effort and personal sacrifice on behalf of the staff.

Funding arrangements to support this service are haphazard and crisis managed either through charitable donations or statutory agency support. This results in services that are erratic and inconsistent in their administration and are very often short-term expedients. This situation cannot be to the benefit of either the victims or for those providing this invaluable support.

What is required is a sustained effort to support the voluntary agencies in a more structured way so that there is longevity in approach. This would ensure that the necessary expertise is in place for those victims who seek support but not redress through the criminal justice process. This is a fundamental right for any individual in a civilised society.

In my capacity as lead on rape issues for ACPO I will do my level best to bring about sustainable change not only through the traditional criminal justice route but also through colleagues in the often beleaguered voluntary sector. Both elements have to be addressed without further delay if we are to provide a truly victim centred service.

John Yates is a Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police Service