Last year, there were 18 proven reports of sexual assault in Penticton, but while that low number may seem like cause for celebration, experts in the field of helping sexual assault survivors are skeptical that this is accurate.
“I have to be honest, 18 in a town this size, it makes me wonder why the stat is so low,” said Debbie Scarborough, executive director of the South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS).
“We know statistically across Canada that one out of 10 people report when they’ve been sexually assaulted, so when I see 18 proven, I think 180. So of 180 sexual assaults, we have 18 that came forward and were proven.
“If I was an RCMP officer I would be thinking to myself ‘What are we doing wrong that so few people are coming forward? What can we be doing better?’”
The Penticton RCMP found that 11 of the 29 reports of sexual abuse made in 2018 were deemed to be “unfounded,” meaning the resulting investigation determined the offence didn’t occur and cannot be reclassified as another offence. That is about 38 per cent of the reports, more than double the provincial average.
“For all those survivors that are suffering in silence, that’s what gets me. That’s what actually inspires our work and motivates us to do better and do more,” said Scarborough.
Scarborough said while she knows the RCMP do the best that they can, she would like to see an increase in partnerships with SOWINS and similar societies when it comes to investigating these cases.
In particular, she said the society’s employees have valuable trauma-informed training that can be an asset when conducting sensitive interviews about the details of the assault and the survivor’s sexual history in general.
“I think when there’s a situation where someone reports a sexual assault, there needs to be trust. Because there’s going to be someone asking really, really hard questions and the survivor is providing intimate details and there’s a manner in which you can illicit information,” said Scarborough.
“So are all of these interviewers trained in these tactics that are trauma-informed? I’ve read that in some places when a sexual assault has happened, they actually don’t interview the survivor for 48 hours because the mind can actually repress details to keep you safe. And 48 hours later, when you’re calm, you can recall things.”
She said this could be one reason a survivor’s story may have holes in the timeline or changes as time goes on.
“If they say they don’t remember or they start to doubt themselves, it can spiral into them becoming a hostile witness or seem like it’s unfounded because they can’t actually retrieve that memory,” said Scarborough. “And we use that against the survivor. We need to do better and reduce the barriers of people reporting.”
Scarborough said there are a number of ways SOWINS can help survivors of sexual assault, from right after it occurred through to charges being laid and sentencing, if they choose to report it. She said the society does not have a mandate to report assaults, sexual or not, against their clients to the RCMP unless there are children involved.
She said there are even ways to protect your identity and still report the assault, since many don’t come forward for fear of retribution or due to previous bad experiences with law enforcement.
“We actually have what’s called third-party reporting so if you’re an adult over 19 and you’re sexually assaulted, you don’t have to give your name to the RCMP. You can report it third-party or anonymously,” said Scarborough.
“Our community-based victim services works with the sexual assault response team at the Penticton Regional Hospital. We can meet with them and if they don’t want to give their name, we can work with them to get all the same details for the report. It’s extensive, it’s a provincial form and it gathers info about the perpetrator – scent, tattoos, clothing, what they did and all the stuff – and then we forward that to the RCMP without the survivor’s name.”
From there, the RCMP can investigate the case and liaise with SOWINS and the victim about moving forward with charges as necessary. If the victim chooses to press charges, at that point they would need to provide their identity to the RCMP.
As a whole, Scarborough said the society still needs to shift its thinking in terms of victim-blaming sexual assault survivors.
“One of the first questions is always ‘What were you wearing?’ and then followed by ‘What were you thinking?.’ Let’s be clear, if someone was walking around naked, that does not say ‘Rape me’ so whatever you wear or whatever you do does not give permission for someone to sexually assault you,” said Scarborough.
“If you’re intoxicated and passed out, it does not say ‘Rape me.’ So we have to stop giving that defence to perpetrators.”
Scarborough said SOWINS is there to help victims no matter how they choose to deal with their trauma, whether or not this includes filing a report or pressing charges. The society has a 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-814-2033 or those looking for more information about SOWINS services can call the office at 250-493-4366 or visit www.sowins.com.
The Penticton RCMP has not yet responded to a request for comment.
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