Making choice to seek help is a big decision – 80% of sexual violence cases go unreported

About 80% of all survivors of sexual violence do not report to the gardaí.

A damning figure which the Government and stakeholders such as ourselves are working to improve.

To do so the question we must answer is why are such significant numbers of survivors making this choice?

Survivors are women, men, and children from all walks of life, who are making in fact a series of choices, about something that has the potential to have a massive impact on their lives.

Survivors live under a range of circumstances.

They may have families, loved ones, friends, jobs, dependents, illnesses, children, caring responsibilities, exams, bills, debts, mortgages, and all the myriad dilemmas, big and small that people deal with everyday all over Ireland, from do I move house to what shall I have for dinner tonight.

When someone is raped or sexually assaulted, then they have another set of choices. But those choices are not made in isolation, they are made in the context of complete lives.

What will reporting mean to my partner, how will I protect my children, will it affect my career, will it cost me financially, can I afford it, is there a risk that I will be approached by the perpetrator when I go to the supermarket to pick up dinner?

And filtering all those questions will be what survivors might know or believe about attitudes in society, how the justice process works, and what will be asked of them.

It is in that context that many people read the latest sexual assault case appearing in the papers. Each case informs a survivor about what they might expect and indeed risk if they were to report.

A survivor who has just been raped may need medical attention, may be afraid for their safety. They may worry about how others will react.

They may fear the doctor’s or the guard’s reaction. They may wonder who is going to be on their side if they feel overwhelmed.

And on top of that, maybe they don’t speak English, are new to Ireland and don’t know how the hospital and police system works and they are not aware of any support services and how to begin to access them.

Under these circumstances, making the choice to seek help or report is a big decision and getting through the right door is an enormous achievement.

From that moment on it is up to the professionals, the support services and the justice system to make the system work for the survivor, never the other way around.

That means creating the space and conditions for survivors to be heard and listened to; it means supporting the survivor to identify their needs and to meet them where possible; it means giving the survivor the information they need in a way they can understand and hear.

It means seeking and acting upon a survivor’s consent for what happens next.

What happens next might mean a visit to the sexual assault treatment unit where medical and nursing specialists, An Garda Síochána and a rape crisis support worker will meet them.

Those professionals will work to ensure the survivor gets the range of responses and information they need. The survivor will be offered facilities and the privacy to have a shower and a fresh change of clothes. There will be follow up the next day.

Ideally, if they decide to proceed, the gardaí will take a statement in a way that is comfortable and right for the survivor, whether that is supplying the right translator or ensuring the interview is in the local rape crisis centre and not the police station.

The investigation, by a specially trained garda, will be thorough and expert.

Ideally, the survivor can begin counselling with a specialist rape crisis counsellor without having to wait on a waiting list.

They will have been given the name of a guard who will liaise with them and keep in touch throughout.

The survivor will be accompanied and supported and will feel they are treated with respect and dignity in the courtroom.

If their case is not put to trial the reasons will be explained to them by the DPP’s office.

Their loved ones, colleagues and community will be supportive and will not blame or judge them. At all times they will feel safe and empowered in the process.

When all too often these things don’t happen for reasons of bad practice, lack of specialisation or resources or lack of priority, we cannot blame survivors for making the choice not to report.

Increasing the numbers of survivors who choose to report is about changing what happens next to make that choice not only cost less for survivors but ultimately an experience of positive vindication.

Clíona Saidléar is acting director with Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

This piece was originally published by the Irish Examiner on Monday, January 26th 2015, a link can be found here.