Specialist support for victims of sexual violence

Victim Support NI is home to Northern Ireland’s only specialist Independent Sexual Violence Advocate service supporting hundreds of sexual violence victims in Northern Ireland.

“I wouldn’t have got this far if it wasn’t for the support from you.” These are the words of a victim of sexual violence, sent to her Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA), days before her trial was due to start. This simple sentence shows the impact that ISVAs can have on sexual violence cases, helping to support and guide victims through the often stressful, complicated, and lengthy process of seeking justice for what happened to them.

Victim Support NI is home to Northern Ireland’s only specialist ISVA service, a role commissioned by Baroness Stern through the Home Office in 2005, and now used by support agencies throughout the UK. In 2015, Victim Support NI responded to a rise in sexual violence offences reported to the PSNI by applying for funding to set up a dedicated ISVA service. Funding was secured from Comic Relief and the Department of Justice Northern Ireland. The pilot scheme went live in September 2016, staffed by two specially trained ISVAs. The large, increasing caseloads in the months since, paint a depressing picture about the number of sexual crimes that are being committed in this country, and the number of victims, male and female, that require specialist help.

Recent high-profile news stories and events in Hollywood have shone a spotlight on the issue of sexual assault, and the #metoo and #Time’sUp movements have helped show the scale of the problem. Here in Northern Ireland, reported cases of sexual violence are rising. During November 2015 to November 2016, a total of 3,160 sexual offences were reported to the PSNI. Of these, 814 were cases of rape. The following year, these already alarming figures rose to 3,243 reported sexual offences, of which 912 were rape. We must also bear in mind that these figures do not tell the whole story. Research has shown that up to 60 per cent of all crime goes unreported, and given the extremely personal and traumatic nature of sexual violence, victims are often reluctant to let anyone know that this has happened to them, let alone report to the police.

ISVAs receive specialist training in order to provide an informative, non-judgemental support service to victims who have already engaged with the police or criminal justice system, or who are thinking of reporting their crime. The service is also available to those at risk of further sexual violence, and victims with complex advocacy needs. This is a role which requires a very special type of person; someone strong, resilient, patient, understanding, and passionate about helping victims. Victim Support NI were lucky enough to find two such people: Claire Gallaugher works from the Belfast Hub, and Roisin McCallion from the Foyle Hub. Between them, they serve the whole of Northern Ireland, but they do not work in isolation. They have built strong relationships with NEXUS NI, Women’s Aid, 24hr DV/SV helpline, The Rowan Sexual Assault Referral Centre, PSNI, Health Trusts and other support agencies. This partnership approach ensures that best advice is given to victims, and provides a full wraparound service, delivering appropriate and individualised support.

There are huge barriers to coming forward in reporting cases of sexual violence such as: victims may not want anyone else to know, be ashamed or embarrassed, or have a fear they won’t be believed. They may worry about having to give evidence in court, having their background and behaviour investigated, and be concerned that the perpetrator will not be brought to justice. They may also have little knowledge of how to report such crimes, or know what will happen once they do report to the police. Dedicated and professional advocates play an important role in supporting victims through this process, up to the point their case goes to court. As ISVA Roisin McCallion says: “Our aim is to walk with victims in their journey through the criminal justice process. Getting justice in these cases is always important, however, some victims have kept their stories to themselves for many years and so just saying the words out loud to someone can be a huge relief. It’s really rewarding to be a source of support to someone that has the courage and the bravery to come forward and report a sexual crime.”

“As a society, we are so focused on the outcomes in court and the sentences given, that the victim often becomes lost.”

Evidence of the effect that the service can have on victims is shown in this comment from one of Claire’s clients, who emailed her to say: “Speaking to you at our first interview was so much more than I could have expected for support through this terrible ordeal. You helped me fight for results because of my value as a person, and not just to protect other people or to get justice. You have helped change the way I see what has happened to me.”

Speaking about her own personal hopes for the service, ISVA Gallaugher adds: “The main thing I want to achieve is for victims of sexual violence to feel that there is someone who believes them and that they are understood. As a society, we are so focused on the outcomes in court and the sentences given, that the victim often becomes lost. I want to be there to make sure this is not the case and to provide a place where victims can be listened to, heard and believed. Victims need to be told that this is not their fault. Everyone has the right to feel safe and for their body to be safe. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Come forward and seek support.”

This week marks Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness week, and never has there been a more appropriate time to raise our voices and work together to encourage victims to share their experiences. Let them know they will be heard. Break the silence.

If you have been affected by this article and wish to get in touch with the ISVA service, you can do so by phoning Victim Support NI: 
T: 028 9024 3133 or 028 7137 0086, or E: isva@victimsupportni.org.uk
W: www.victimsupportni.co.uk

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